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Mobtown Beat

Beans and Bread and Circuses

Homeless service center's expansion plan riles Fells Point neighbors

Edward Ericson Jr.
An architect's rendering of the proposed Beans and Bread Homeless Center expansion.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 4/29/2009

As the word spreads among them, the visitors to Beans and Bread are incredulous. "That's not the way it was presented," says Victor Corbin, president of the Fells Prospect Community Association. "This is another flipola."

It is Thursday, April 23, and Corbin and others are learning that the community meeting they expected is instead a tour of Beans and Bread, a homeless center and soup kitchen that feeds about 300 people daily. There are "stations" inside the building with fresh-cut flowers and foam-board talking points propped up on folding tables. John Schiavone, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul, the nonprofit that operates Beans and Bread, calls the two-hour open house a "charrette style" meeting.

"Now, we're not even going to be able to ask questions," says Corbin. "This is a waste of my time."

It was just the latest pressure point in a feud between the soup kitchen and its neighbors that erupted this month when Corbin learned of a state bond bill to expand Beans and Bread. At a time when hunger and homelessness are expanding, and Mayor Sheila Dixon has launched an ambitious program to end homelessness in Baltimore, neighbors say they have been left in the dark about a development project that they contend could harm their property values and quality of life. They regard the format of this evening's meeting as another slap in the face from an organization that has been high-handed for years.

"This meeting is very specious," neighbor Dolores Deluxe says. "It's a dog and pony show. And we're leaving."

Schiavone called the meeting in the wake of a campaign by several neighbors, including Corbin, to derail $300,000 in state taxpayer funding for the planned $4.4 million expansion. In a widely circulated April 7 e-mail to State Del. Carolyn Krysiak (D-Baltimore), Corbin questioned the funding, which came in a bond bill Krysiak sponsored.

"I personally can't understand why the state is funding this at this time when we have no money and taxes are increasing," Corbin wrote. "The city just last year opened a homeless shelter in Butchers Hill, and Baltimore Street has numerous soup kitchens and homeless shelters only a few blocks north of Beans and Bread. I see no benefit to the community and questions still remain [about] where are those who use the services come[ing] from."

Corbin wonders why Beans and Bread cannot be shut down under the city's "padlock" ordinance, as was done with some crime-filled bars and liquor stores. "So what is the difference between that and a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen that creates nuisance crimes and quality-of-life issues?" he asks. "That is my question to the city, and I cannot get a straight answer."

The neighborhood reaction plainly annoys Schiavone, who told the state Board of Public Works at its April 15 meeting that neighbors were "misinformed" about the plan and that Beans and Bread has always been a good neighbor. He read from two letters, the last dated from 2007, written by John Berggren, president of the Douglass Place Neighborhood Association, attesting to Beans and Bread's open communications. That neighborhood association has since fallen apart, he says, but Beans and Bread has done its best to reach out to neighbors individually.

The state Board of Public Works--Comptroller Peter Franchot, Treasurer Nancy Kopp, and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, sitting in for Gov. Martin O'Malley--unanimously approved the expenditure, unmoved by the testimony of Deborah Tempera, a neighboring property owner, who questioned Schiavone's credibility. Brown cut Tempera off when she asked Krysiak to explain her sponsorship of the bill given her membership on the board of directors of St. Vincent de Paul.

"God bless you for working with them," Franchot told Schiavone. "Otherwise, we would have tent cities."

Beans and Bread feeds the homeless, but Schiavone rejects the term "soup kitchen," calling it instead a "day-resource center" that offers counseling and case management to its clients and moves some into permanent housing. "It's based on the housing-first concept," he says. Without the case management, mental-health counseling and drug-treatment support, homeless people "end up back on the streets again and again and again."

Schiavone says the expansion plan would roughly double Beans and Bread's floor area from 7,000 to 14,000 square feet. The space would not be used to serve many more homeless, but would allow better services to those who already come. Currently, people line up around the block at meal time.

"From a neighborhood perspective, people would prefer not to be confronted with the sight of so many people waiting for services," Schiavone says. "So I think that there is a mutual interest that we have here for better accommodating the people . . . because they're going to come here anyway."

Schiavone has depicted his opponents as unreasonable, decrying their inquiries to private foundations and others as the work of meddling naysayers bent on stopping the project. "The reality is we already have $3.5 million raised on this project," he says. "It's going to happen, the question is, what's it going to look like? Trying to kill the project is not a productive activity." This attitude has irritated the neighbors, who say the project has flown under the radar since it received a $350,000 city government-backed mortgage for the purchase of an adjacent warehouse in 2007.

"I made certain that they didn't say 'We support your proposal,' just, 'Thank you for the dialogue, we look forward to continuing it.' But not much happened after that," says Berggren of his letters, which Schiavone quoted to lawmakers. He confirms that his organization stopped meeting more than a year ago. There was communication with Beans and Bread, he says, but nothing about the expansion until January, when he received a voicemail he did not return.

He can't confirm Schiavone's claim that there have been five community meetings. "The last two may have been with other organizations," he says.

The number of meetings may not be academic. Some foundations require specific community outreach to be completed before grants can be approved, and City Hall officials sometimes frown on developers who stint on this requirement. Schiavone told state officials two weeks ago that his organization had five meetings with the community, but tonight he counts this charrette as among the five.

"You haven't been meeting with the community," says Deirdre Hammer, who lives next door to the proposed expansion. "We asked that you come back, and you never came back."The crowd melts away about an hour before the meeting's scheduled 9 p.m. end. "The dialogue that we wanted to see happened," Schiavone says. "It was not a giant room with people yelling at each other, but we don't see that as productive."

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