Baltimore officials are considering transforming a city building along the Fallsway into a permanent year-round shelter for homeless near the city's largest soup kitchen and jail.
The proposal - to be presented to residents of Mount Vernon tonight - comes as Baltimore officials are scrambling to come up a replacement for a city homeless shelter used temporarily this winter. Dozens of homeless men, women and children must be moved by the end of the month, when that shelter in Greenmount West is scheduled to close.
But an interim shelter would still be needed before the permanent site opens, and officials said they are eyeing three other buildings as potential locations. They declined to discuss the specific sites.
A spokesman for Mayor Sheila Dixon said yesterday that the permanent shelter - whether it's at Fallsway and Centre Street or someplace else - probably won't open until 2009. City officials want to create a shelter that will have room for social workers to help residents find jobs and stable housing. The city has a state grant for $1 million to set up such a shelter.
City officials' recent focus on homelessness represents a shift in policy away from temporary help to more permanent fixes. Dixon has made public statements about ending homelessness, and she visited Denver last year to attend a conference on the subject with other mayors who face similar challenges.
In years past, the city has closed its winter shelter once the weather improved, usually in March or April. This is the first time officials have publicly discussed the possibility of having a permanent, city-run shelter that residents could use in times of crisis. The city supports many shelters, but they are run by nonprofit organizations that compete for public funding.
"Everyone is hustling like crazy to find locations for everyone," said Dixon spokesman Sterling Clifford, referring to individuals who will have to move out of the winter shelter, which is in an old elementary school in the 1600 block of Guilford Ave., by April 1.
Advocates for the homeless have been sounding the alarm about the city's lack of shelter for months - long before dozens of homeless men and women began setting up tarp-and-cardboard encampments along the Jones Falls Expressway in downtown Baltimore. Those camps were cleared in December - city fire officials said they were fire hazards - and many of the residents were moved to the winter shelter or other locations.
Several shelters have closed in recent months and the city has been struggling to find beds for those who need them. Rents have also been steadily increasing, and many of those who find themselves without shelter say they can't afford an apartment, even if they have a job.
City officials are being careful not to release too much information about the proposed site for the permanent shelter. They said yesterday that they don't want residents of Mount Vernon to become alarmed before the two groups have a chance to meet to discuss the proposal.
"The Fallsway site is a site that we are exploring," said Diane Glauber, director of Baltimore Homeless Services, which moved some of its staff into the mayor's offices at City Hall last week.
Glauber said she wants to "do a study to see what kind of impact" there would be on the larger Mount Vernon community if the shelter moved there. The shelter would be in an existing city building, but it would have to be renovated before it could be inhabited. "We still have a lot of work to do," Glauber said.
Mount Vernon residents are leery of committing to shouldering too many of the city's social services.
"Our concern is, 'Can we sustain that additional social load?'" said R. Paul Warren, vice president of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association.
Warren said that there are already about 60 social services facilities in the neighborhood, which is a mix of businesses, government offices, cultural sites and residential properties. "That's an awful lot for one neighborhood," he said.
Warren said he expects the meeting, which will be held at 7:30 p.m. in a ballroom of the Belvedere condominium complex at 1 E. Chase St., to be well-attended. He said the proposed location of the year-round shelter makes sense given its proximity to the Our Daily Bread Employment Center, an outreach center on Fallsway run by Catholic Charities. The location also would be east of the JFX and much of the residential section of the neighborhood.
Still, residents have some concerns. "We're anxious to hear what the city has to say," Warren said.
Residents of Greenmount West, who have lived next to the winter shelter for the past few months, are relieved to know that the facility will be closing soon, said resident Patricia Kelly.
Even though the community voted recently to allow the city to keep the shelter open for an extra month to house women and children, officials have decided to close it anyway and move families to another facility, said Glauber.
Kelly said that the location of the winter shelter in her neighborhood brought a host of problems, including public defecation and drunkenness. She said she might share her concerns with Mount Vernon residents. "We think the new community has the right to know what our experiences have been," Kelly said.