The Franciscan Center of Baltimore is throwing away thousands of pounds of clothing, toys and other donations, for fear of infestation by bedbugs, Executive Director Christian Metzger said Wednesday.
"It's breaking my heart to do this, but safety has to come first," said Metzger, who wore a disposable hazardous materials suit as he and his staff disposed of the goods, ranging from shirts and pants to stuffed animals, in a large trash receptacle outside the center in North Baltimore on Wednesday morning.
Metzger said evidence of bedbugs in a storage area of the Franciscan Center, 101 W. 23rd St., came to light Monday when employees and visitors complained of bites on their arms and legs.
"This is the first time it's happened," he said.
Metzger said he asked officials at Bay City Pest Control, the company that the center uses for extermination services, for advice on what action to take, and that they told him, "You gotta start over from scratch."
Fumigation of the clothing storage area was expected to be done this week, and the area was expected to reopen Nov. 9, Metzger said. He also said the center would put in place a protocol that would include installing a machine that can "bake" donated clothes to decontaminate them.
Other areas of the Franciscan Center, including its food pantry, soup kitchen and computer lab for job skills training, remained open and were not believed to be in danger of contamination by bedbugs, Metzger said.
About 700 people a day visit the 48-year-old center, which has an annual budget of $2 million and is a ministry of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi. The mission of the center, as stated on its website, http://fcbmore.org, is "to provide emergency assistance and supportive outreach to persons who are economically disadvantaged in an effort to assist them in realizing their self-worth and dignity as people of God."
"Unfortunately, when you open yourself up to taking donations from the community, this kind of stuff happens," he said.
Metzger urged the public to clean clothing, toiletries and other items before donating them. He said he has also reached out to his counterparts at other private agencies in the area that provide such services, including Goodwill Industries, Planet Aid and Paul's Place in Southwest Baltimore, urging them to put protocols in place if they have not done so already.
"I told them, 'You're living on borrowed time,'" he said.
Metzger said the center's budget and donor base are substantial enough that he expects the center to recover pretty quickly from the loss of the clothing.
The disposal of so much donated clothing saddened Robert Williams and Dan Griffin, both of Rodgers Forge, who packed Griffin's van with boxes and bags of clothing and drove to the Franciscan Center, but never unpacked the van there, because Metzger gently turned them away and told them to come back next week.
They were trying to donate women's clothing that they had picked up from Prologue, Inc., a resource center in Towson that serves mostly homeless men and had little use for the women's clothing that had been donated to Prologue.
Although Griffin and Williams said they did not blame the center for its safety precautions, "It's disheartening to see," Griffin said.
"You're throwing out what's (intended) to help people who already have very little," said Williams, who recently started his own small group called Homeless Outreach CALM (Compassion, Aid, Love, Mercy). "I'm just glad our stuff did not get thrown out."
Said Griffin, "Imagine if we had come yesterday."