Environmental Crisis Center Struggles

by Russell J. Henley

Despite bouts with City Hall and the Housing Department, the Environmental Crisis Center continues to serve Baltimore’s poor and homeless

Inside the Environmental Crisis Center at 1936 East 30th Street on these cold winter days, you can see your breath because there is no heat. The seven-bedroom, two-story brick house has been an off-and-on home to several area homeless people. On the front porch, protected from the wind by the plastic sheets of a make-shift solar collector, sit boxes of vegetables, clothing, and other items for the homeless to take.

What once was a crackhouse in an East Baltimore neighborhood drug operation is now home base for a crisis center dedicated to helping feed, clothe, and house the homeless, as well as simultaneously improving Baltimore’s environment.

“They don’t want me here,” says Board President Charles Swiden of City officials. The Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), he claims, is trying to move the Center out, having cited it for several violations.

Catherine M. Brennan, special assistant city solicitor for the DHCD, confirmed that assessment. “The property has flaking and deteriorated paint on the exterior surfaces, a door on the second floor that opens to nothing, and a defective wall in the rear,” said Brennan.

Located in the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello neighborhood which has been designated as a “hot spot for crime” by the DHCD, the building, she said, is viewed as unsafe and a “blighting influence” to the area.

Swiden and the Center’s volunteers haven’t allowed this disapproval to stop them from their work. They have been feeding the homeless in front of City Hall for five years, and that hasn’t been without incident either. In December 2000, the City tried to move the feeding location to a site across the street from the Central Booking and Intake Center and state prison, but the group has not since moved its mission.

There have been encounters with police at the City Hall site, according to Dave Greene, retired physics professor who has been volunteering for three years at the Center, loading trucks and delivering supplies to the feeding site. Greene mentions one officer who approached Swiden and the other volunteers during a feeding. Before the officer said or did anything, Swiden wrapped his arms around the huge container of stew from which he had been serving and exclaimed “You’re not taking my pot!”

Greene feels that the location in front of City Hall is ideal. “Instead of serving under the Jones Falls Expressway, this location makes the homeless situation very visible to the public,” Greene explains.

The Center relies on donations which, rather surprisingly, come primarily from present and former clients. One man residing in a nearby abandoned building gave Swiden a candle to use as a light source when the Center’s electricity was off. Others have given what they can afford: $5 and $10 at a time.

“Eighty-five percent of our donations comes from the little guy,” says Swiden.

The Center’s weekly meal in front of City Hall, served on Monday afternoons, costs roughly $165.

“We’re not just handing out sandwiches,” Swiden points out. “We give them a hot meal.” Volunteers of many backgrounds, ranging from Quaker to Islamic, cook the stews containing meat, potatoes, tomatoes and rice. Blankets and even toys for the children are also distributed, as well as books for those who like to read. Companies such as Esskay have donated hundreds of pounds of meat to the Crisis Center, which feeds on average between 100 and 200 homeless and poor people weekly.

The Environmental Crisis Center also runs a home giveaway program, which looks to revitalize Baltimore’s vacant buildings in an attempt to end homelessness. For example, one building on Port Street in Northeast Baltimore now houses three people after they and some volunteers repaired the roof, kitchen sink, and electrical system.

After running three shelters over the last few years, Swiden says he came to the realization that “shelters are not the answer.” The home giveaway project to create group or single family homes, he believes, achieves a more permanent solution for both the City and the poor and homeless.

The non-profit organization is currently eyeing 12 other buildings that have the potential to be restored to livable condition. The costs for materials and labor range from $5,000 to $28,000 per dwelling. Teams of volunteers and future occupants will work on the restoration projects using donated and recycled items from local lumber yards.

The Environmental Crisis Center is also looking to launch a pilot program called “Green City Project,” in which greenhouses would be built on the rooftops of city buildings in order to cut energy costs for residents and create a source of food and income. During the winter months, the heat from the sunlight would be pumped into the house, while cooler air would filter into the buildings during summer nights, cutting heating and cooling costs by an estimated 50 percent. Swiden points out that if a greenhouse garden is planted and tended to, residents could sell produce and flowers to help support themselves or harvest it to sustain themselves and their families.

The Crisis Center’s building is to be used as a prototype for this program. An architect has estimated that the prototype greenhouse will cost $165,000, including renovations. However, Swiden said smaller greenhouse kits are available for as little as $1200, and can be used for houses that do not require as much alteration to accommodate them.

Swiden, a believer in the physical and psychological benefits of working among growing, living things, estimates that about one-third of the homeless are mentally ill, and could very likely benefit from working in greenhouses.

The Environmental Crisis Center also has ideas to help keep the Chesapeake Bay clean: an awareness program for Baltimore businesses that periodically use the sewer drains to discard oil and other pollutants. The Center has plans for volunteers to paint messages on the City’s sewer drains that read “This goes to the Chesapeake Bay.”

Another project that the Center is implementing is planting tree seedlings all over Baltimore, especially in Herring Run Park. In addition, volunteers have also cleaned Mothers Garden on Harford Road and Erdman Avenue in Clifton Park.

Above all, Swiden says, “We need social change. We need to keep sharing. We need to be a funnel to the poor.”

Founded in 1991, the Environmental Crisis Center’s mission is to see that Baltimore has a clean environment and ensure that the poor and homeless have a place to live. The organization achieved non-profit, charitable status from the IRS in 1997. The Center needs donations for its many programs. If you’d like to volunteer your time or donate money or other items, call 410-889-1555.

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This story was published on March 5, 2003.