Residents support city's homeless shelter plans

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore wants to build a new homeless shelter on the edge of one of the city's most prestigious neighborhoods, and community association leaders are uniformly supportive.

The board of directors for the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association unanimously signed off on plans for a 275-bed shelter on the Fallsway, a boost to Mayor Sheila Dixon's pledge to end homelessness in the city.

The neighborhood association has not always been so accommodating. It has launched a fight against a 7-Eleven out of fears that it would attract a bad crowd. Members want to shut a soup kitchen in the heart of Mount Vernon and hope to close a hip-hop club that was the scene of a recent shooting.

Why accept the city's largest homeless shelter?

City officials have promised $30,000 a year toward improving a park in Mount Vernon, an additional mile per year of road paving for the next 10 years, $500,000 for streetlight repairs and the removal of rush-hour "no parking" signs on major arteries.

The city is also offering a new master plan for the neighborhood, increased police coverage, a 24-hour hot line for residents to report problems and a promise not to move more homeless people to the neighborhood.

"We joked that we wanted a community swimming pool," said R. Paul Warren, the association's vice president, referring to the requests that his group developed during negotiations with the city.

The association did not get everything it wanted, but it received a lot, rare in a year when Baltimore is slicing budgets.

Still, the community support came as a "pleasant surprise," said Diane Glauber, who is in charge of homeless services for the city.

Mount Vernon's attitude is also a marked difference from protests the city endured last year from Butchers Hill and Greenmount West neighborhoods when they placed temporary shelters in those areas.

"We had the luxury of time, which we did not have in the previous efforts," said First Deputy Mayor Andrew B. Frank. He noted that the other neighborhoods eventually developed good working relationships with the city.

Most of the commitments to Mount Vernon have little immediate relation to the homeless shelter.

"We are asking these neighborhoods to bear a disproportionate burden," Frank said. "So we want to make other investments in the community to strengthen it."

The plan for a new shelter, which the group agreed to last month, must still be approved by the City Council, where it faces opposition. Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who represents parts of Mount Vernon and some of the nearby communities in East Baltimore, does not support the plan.

Developers of two proposed hotels near the shelter site on the Fallsway have expressed opposition and could raise their voices at expected City Council hearings.

The Dixon administration must still secure millions of dollars in funding from private and state sources - commitments they believe they are close to receiving. The city would have to remove beds if funding erodes, according to the agreement.

Young warns that community support could be fragile. "It is not like everyone in Mount Vernon is jumping up and down with joy that those homeless people are going to be there," he said.

In the past year, the Dixon administration opened and closed a series of emergency shelters around the city. The people who stayed there are now housed in a 350-bed shelter in the upper two floors of the former city Health Department building on Guilford Avenue. The city is working to find housing for them - 78 entered permanent housing last month - but many will become tenants in the Fallsway building. A census two years ago estimated the number of homeless people in the city at 3,000.

The Fallsway shelter would have 75 fewer beds than the Guilford site. Glauber, with the city homeless services department, said overflow tenants would be bused to temporary shelters at night - likely cots set up in recreation centers - and returned to Fallsway during the day.

Construction could start as early as this spring. Costs are estimated at $8.2 million, and the shelter will have to meet strict environmental standards, officials said.

It would offer other services for the city's homeless population, including health care, access to employment services, housing referrals and nonprofit groups and a 25-bed convalescent care floor. The new shelter would be near Our Daily Bread, a soup kitchen. Glauber, with her staff of 25, would also work out of the new building.

The concentration of homeless services concerns Young. "It is like they are trying to build a homeless campus right there," Young said. "All I'm trying to do is get people to see that my district is oversaturated with those types of services. I am not against homeless people, because we are all one paycheck away from being homeless."

Neighborhood leaders developed a list of wishes, including issues they had been lobbying to change for years, such as more on-street parking and the development of a master plan.

Warren, the association vice president, said the commitments still must be codified into a legally binding document. The city hopes it will be signed this week.

"It is important that it transcend the current mayor and her commitment to end homelessness," he said. "We can scream when we don't like what we see."

The association didn't get everything it wanted, and key to its support was a commitment that the new shelter not become a warehouse for the homeless. A permanent population, Warren said, would find ways to "somehow live off the local community."

Part of the city's plan is to build 20 smaller complexes to settle homeless people permanently in other parts of the city. Each of those facilities would charge some rent and would include support services for tenants. City officials have also secured 500 scarce federal low-income housing vouchers that they plan to use to provide apartments for the homeless.

Warren said he'll encourage other neighborhoods to embrace the complexes and to support low-income housing where the homeless could move.

"We will challenge any neighborhoods from taking the classic [not in my backyard] approach," he said.

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