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Mobtown Beat

Beans and Dread

A long-planned homeless center's expansion got underway last week. Then, a shelter employee stabbed a client.

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Deirdre Hammer, president of the Douglass Place Neighborhood Association, is one of those concerned that the expansion of Beans and Bread will bring more crime to the area.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 11/25/2009

When the demolition contractor fenced the warehouse behind Beans and Bread's Bond Street homeless-services center on Nov. 16, it was to be the start of a long-planned expansion of the facility, an occasion for celebration by the center's parent, St. Vincent de Paul, and the 19 staff members on site.

But then, according to police charging documents, one of the staff members stabbed a client.

Shortly after noon, William H. Bryant, a part-time worker at the center, got into an argument with client Donald Barnes after refusing to give him a second bag of toiletries, according to police. Barnes threatened Bryant's life, and Bryant followed Barnes outside with a knife and stabbed him in the back. Bryant was arrested, jailed, and charged with attempted second-degree murder, among other offenses. Barnes was treated and released from Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The stabbing renewed neighbors' complaints about the center's expansion, which many say will make the facility too big, too disruptive, and too dangerous for the small and historic residential area just north of Fells Point's tourist destinations. It also underscores the challenges some charities face as they try to balance the safety of their clients and community against their mission to provide basic needs to the poor.

"Unfortunately, Beans & Bread is not immune to the mentality on the streets of Baltimore of people settling their differences by physical violence against each other," Teresa Eaton, St. Vincent de Paul's director of communications, wrote in an e-mail to Beans and Bread neighbors on Nov. 18, attached to a short public statement about the incident.

"This altercation is deeply troubling," stated Susan Roberts, acting director of the Beans and Bread Center, in the public statement. "This was an isolated event. During the 32 years that Beans & Bread has been in operation, there has not been a single violent incident of this nature."

Neighbors dispute that, pointing to a March incident in which a client threatened someone with a knife.

For most of the year, a group of neighbors anchored by the Douglass Place Neighborhood Association has fought Beans and Bread's planned expansion. They say they were left out of the planning stages as the facility's officials pulled political strings to get the $4.4 million addition funded ("Beans and Bread and Circuses," Mobtown Beat, April 29). Beans and Bread says the expansion, to be built on the former warehouse site, will help the neighborhood by bringing clients indoors while they wait for food and other services.

On Nov. 18, as the warehouse was razed, nine neighboring property owners filed a court appeal to the zoning decision that approved the expansion. The complaint says that the zoning process violated the neighbors' right to due process and freedom of speech. It asks a judge to stop the project.

But the e-mail chatter among the anti-Beans and Bread activists centered on the stabbing and St. Vincent de Paul's response, which some say indicates that the organization accepts violence.

"People are really ticked off about that," says Deirdre Hammer, president of the Douglass Place Neighborhood Association. "It is that mentality that supports hiring someone like this gentleman."

Online court records show that a William H. Bryant with the same birthday and address as the Beans and Bread employee was arrested at least eight times between 1994 and 1998. The charges included drug-dealing, passing counterfeit bills, assault, battery, and theft. In 2000, he was sentenced to a three-year prison term on drug-dealing charges. This came after another conviction for violation of probation.

Eaton says that every employee of St. Vincent de Paul is fingerprinted and background-checked, but she is "not sure" how many Beans and Bread employees have criminal records. "We are not the type of employer that would say we're not going to give you another chance," she says. "We are an organization that tries to help people through several incidences. . . . Our mission is to meet people's basic needs--that does mean finding people employment."

Eaton says her organization does not allow those convicted of sex crimes to work in proximity to children, and tries to keep people from doing jobs that might be related to their past crimes. "A conviction does not preclude a person from working with us," she says. "But it depends on the relation to the work that person's going to be doing."

The policy is news to Beans and Bread's neighbors.

"We were not aware of it," says Victor Corbin, president of the neighboring Fells Prospect Community Association. "The way they make it sound, it's volunteers--they're from Catholic Charities, they're from Loyola. So it's not the kind of thing you'd expect to happen."

Corbin obtained the 911 record for Beans and Bread before the zoning hearing in September. According to the figures, in 2008 and the first eight months of 2009, police were called to the homeless center 28 times for disorderly persons, 11 times for common assaults, and once for an "armed person"--the client with the knife in March.

"I have, like, a little 10-foot picket fence, a little courtyard, their staff accesses," says Hammer. More than a decade ago, she removed barbed wire from the top of her wall adjacent to Beans and Bread, she says, after John Schiavone, St. Vincent de Paul's executive director, assured her it was not needed. Now, she says, "I'm concerned about my safety. My fence is right there, right next to my back door and windows."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story was published Nov. 20, 2009.

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