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Baltimore Shelter Protects the Most Vulnerable

H.O.P.E. Shelter / Newsline photo by Diego Mantilla
The shelter is located on Fairmount Avenue in Baltimore. (Newsline photo by Diego Mantilla)
By Diego Mantilla
Maryland Newsline
Friday, March 2, 2007

BALTIMORE - At 7 a.m., Earl Carter-Bey, a 59-year-old man who walks with the aid of a cane, leaves the site of the former Elmer Henderson Elementary School in East Baltimore, which the city now uses as an overnight shelter for homeless people. Other people walk out. A large flock of gulls munch on bread crumbs scattered on the thick sheet of ice that covers the yard. A string of boarded-up rowhouses stand to the south as Carter-Bey moves slowly, step by step, attempting to catch a van that would take him to HOPE, a daytime shelter in southeast Baltimore.

Someone shouts that the van is full as he crosses North Washington Street. “I still wanna catch it,” he says very softly. But the van leaves without him.

Moments later, Carter-Bey catches a bus, showing up at HOPE a half hour later.

HOPE, short for Helping Other People Through Empowerment, aids homeless people who have been diagnosed with mental illness. For people like Carter-Bey, who have no other place to go, HOPE provides a refuge from the streets.

The federally and state-funded shelter is consumer-run--the only one of its kind in Maryland, said Sue Diehl, president of Baltimore Mental Health Systems.

Its director and staff have been homeless, or suffered from mental illness or drug addiction, or have had some dealings with someone who has been in those situations.

Ninety-five percent of the employees have a major mental illness, according to literature provided by HOPE.

“The clients are able to identify totally with the personnel,” said Clarissa Netter, HOPE’s former executive director and first board president.

Finding Refuge

Carter-Bey has been homeless for three years. He said he was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder in 1994. His only income comes from Social Security.

“I can’t work no more,” he says. “I am very sick and have high blood pressure.”

He says he is unable to afford a place to live.

“It’s the landlords. You don’t have the right money, they put you out. That is why there are so many homeless people in Baltimore City.

“It’s getting worse and harder. People are not looking out for people no more. People are not trying to help each other. It’s all about money.”

Carter-Bey said that on a recent morning he got kicked out of another shelter at 5:30 a.m. Until HOPE opened at 8:30 a.m., he just walked around.

H.O.P.E. Shelter Director Tom Hicks/ Newsline photo by Diego Mantilla
Thomas Hicks, director of HOPE, outside the shelter. (Maryland Newsline photo by Diego Mantilla)
Peer Counselors, Phones and Washing Machines

The shelter opened in January 2000 after a survey was conducted at various psychiatric rehabilitation programs to determine what kinds of help was needed for homeless people diagnosed with mental illness, Netter said.

“We learned the things you see in the center,” she said. Those included the need to provide access to telephones, showers, washers, driers, some type of snack and, most important, peer support counselors.

The shelter served 719 people last year, according to Executive Director Thomas Hicks—up from 425 in 2001. (The numbers, though, are not exact, Hicks said. If someone came, left, and then returned months later, he or she could have been counted more than once.)

Before helping start HOPE, Netter said she had been close to being homeless.

She used to work as a rental manager in an apartment complex. She lost her job after suffering what she described as “a major mental breakdown.” She said she and her children lived in an apartment without hot water and electricity for months. She then moved in with relatives until she was able to regain financial stability.

“It took me three years to get a job working one day a week,” she said.

Netter has been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.

J’Nay Jones, who also has been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, has been working at HOPE as a peer support specialist for about three weeks. On a recent Tuesday she called people on the list to use the washer: “Dennis. Dennis. Dennis going one, twice, OK -- next.”

She said it is important for staff to understand what people with mental illness are going through.

“That’s why I like the title peer,” she said.

One of the Best

On another day, Ken Vogelpohl, a 47-year-old man who became homeless in March, sat facing away from the television in the social area of the shelter.

“They do a lot of stuff here in this shelter,” Vogelpohl said. “This is one of the best. The staff is really decent. They are very kind. They treat you with respect and dignity.”

Vogelpohl, who said he is chronically ill and suffers from a heart condition, has been homeless for about a year. He said he used to receive disability income from Social Security. He lost it after failing to recertify his condition.

He said he was unaware that he had to recertify his condition periodically in order to continue receiving a Social Security check.

According to the Social Security Administration, nonpermanent impairment disability cases come up for review every three years.

Unable to pay rent, Vogelpohl was evicted. Explaining his first day without a home, he said it was like going “from peace of mind to a survival mode.” He descibed how the cold weather makes the street, an already inhospitable place, doubly hard on people who have fragile health.

“Because of my health and being hospitalized, the streets are physically demanding. You move up and down stairs. It is physically demanding for people who are ill,” Vogelphol said.

He said he had to keep moving in order to retain some body heat. “In the winter time, if you don’t keep moving, the streets will kill homeless people.”

Vogelpohl has been diagnosed with panic disorder.

Getting In

To be admitted to HOPE, one has to be referred by another agency or bring psychiatric papers that show diagnosis of mental illness. The shelter, in the rapidly gentrifying Washington Hill neighborhood, is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week.

On some especially cold days, Hicks allows people into the anteroom earlier.

Its mission statement hangs on a wall in the director’s office: “…to assist adults with mental illness … using peer support in a comfortable environment.”

According to HOPE’s staff, it receives about $200,000 from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and about $75,000 a year from the state.

William Brown, 46, said he was diagnosed with diabetes in 1998. Soon after, he said he was fired from his job. [MSOffice3] 

“My wife left me. I lost my house … so I wound up in my mom’s house,” he said.

He said he promised his mother he was not going to let anybody put her in a nursing home and stuck with her through a painful battle against cervical cancer.

“I watched this man zip up my mother and put her in a body bag. That was my last moment with my mother,” Brown said.  

After his mother’s death, Brown says he began using crack cocaine and became homeless. He has been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.

“For quite some time, during the day, I just roamed the street,” he said.

Then, in 2000, he heard of HOPE.

He has sought refuge there ever since.

Brown, who lost his right arm to diabetes, said that HOPE allows him to be with people just like him and not feel out of place.

“I need a place like this, because it puts me in a state of mind of not having to walk out on the streets,” Brown said.

Copyright 2007 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

Banner graphic by Hortense Barber and Diego Mantilla; banner photos courtesy of Greg Sileo.


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