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Debate over grant for homeless-outreach center in Towson stirs controversy

Prologue, at 609 Baltimore Ave.

Tucked into a quiet side street in downtown Towson is a homeless-outreach center called Prologue. It’s not a shelter, and overnight stays are not allowed. But it is a place where homeless people can go to get a meal, take a shower, and wash their clothes — as well as get help with social services and job searches. It is open three days a week and has been in operation for 20 years.

The center was recently awarded a $300,000 grant from Baltimore County to purchase its building, which it had been renting for $1 per year from the adjacent Trinity Episcopal Church.

But the grant approval was put on hold after neighbors expressed concern about the facility’s management and said it attracts homeless people to the area. In addition, a prominent commercial real estate investor put forward a plan that would displace Prologue but also generate an on-going revenue stream for homeless outreach in Towson.

The Baltimore County Council is set to vote on the grant this Tuesday, Sept. 5.

Wayne Gioioso Jr., president of Mid-Atlantic Realty, floated a proposal in which he would buy the property from Trinity for $320,000 ($20,000 above what Prologue is set to pay) and then he would donate the property to a newly created task force of community residents and leaders.

The task force would lease the land to a developer, which, he said, would create a revenue stream of $50,000 to $100,000 per year in perpetuity. All of the revenue, Gioioso said, would be donated to homeless programs in Towson at the discretion of the task force.

Wayne Gioioso

And that same task force would decide what kind of development they want on the site, he said, such as apartments, offices or an assisted-living facility. That piece of property is especially attractive, Gioioso said, because unlike some areas of Towson, it’s zoned to allow a high rise.

“I’m not getting a dime out of it,” Gioioso said. “I’m doing it because I own other property in Towson and I love Towson.”

He added that Prologue could remain in the building for several years — three years to seven years, he said — virtually rent free while they find a new location in Towson.

Gioioso is known for his philanthropy. Among his efforts, he has worked extensively with Rev. William J. Watters of St. Ignatius in Baltimore City on several schools, including being a founding board member of the Cristo Rey Jesuit High School that gives free education to low-income Baltimore boys.

“Wayne is very much a man for others who always asks ‘What can I do that’s better and more effective in serving the poor?'” Rev. Watters said in an interview.

“I think with this present project, he thought maybe he could do something better than what the organization has in mind and make it a long-standing project for life to help the poor,” Watters said. “He was taken aback by the opposition.”

That opposition came in part because Gioioso and others circulated a flier that many felt was offensive to homeless people. It was mailed to homes in West Towson with no return address and no authority line indicating who produced it.

The flier, below, also made its way into the hands of County Council members, who mentioned it at a work session on Tuesday.

“For anybody who put that out, please don’t say that you’re all about the homeless when you’re doing a lot fear tactics, respectfully,” said Council President Tom Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat, as he held up the flier. 

Gioioso said he was frustrated by the lack of transparency about the grant and the lack of notice to the community. He said he’d been trying to meet with Prologue officials about his proposal but had been “rebuffed.” He has since met with Prologue leaders.

“To me it’s sort of a chess game and my only move was that flier because no one would talk to me,” said Gioioso, who added that he was not the only one associated with the fliers. “I am not anti-homeless; I one-hundred percent believe in helping the homeless. My problem is that the [Kevin] Kamenetz administration is trying to make this happen without any debate. Why can’t we talk about this grant?”

Jason Vittori, an attorney and head of the Greater Towson Committee, also told the County Council that he was concerned that the grant was being rushed through without debate. 

“The administration remains committed to supporting qualified organizations like Prologue, that help the most vulnerable people in our communities,” a spokeswoman for Kamenetz said in an email.

Sendy Rommel

Sendy Rommel, president and CEO of Prologue, said she is suspicious of Gioioso’s motivations. 

“All [Gioioso] wants is the property,” she said in an interview. “We serve the community — people that no one really gives a hoot about, and we’ve done that for 20 years.”

Vittori and others said they were worried that once Prologue acquires the property, it will be re-developed into a high-rise, 24-hour shelter.

But Rommel said that is not their plan.

“We don’t want to do that,” she said. “I told them that I would agree to that language being in the conditions of the award — that it will not be a shelter, it will not be a  24-hour residential  facility.”

Katie Chasney Pinheiro, executive director of the Greater Towson Committee, said her group feels that Prologue is not the “highest and best use” for the Baltimore Avenue property. 

“We feel the core of Towson really should be focused on redevelopment and revitalization,” Pinheiro said. “I think it would make more sense somewhere else — possibly on York Road.”

But both Rommel and Council President Quirk pointed out that it would be extremely challenging to find a new location that wouldn’t be controversial.

“It’s pretty difficult to find locations in Towson for homeless shelters. It’s also pretty difficult to find locations for salt domes and for landfills,” Quirk said to Gioioso at the work session.

“If you can find me a couple of locations in Towson that we can put homeless shelters, I would really entertain that,” Quirk added.

606 Baltimore Ave.

Also testifying at the work session were several people who work across the street from Prologue at 606 Baltimore Ave. Public urination by homeless people was a common complaint, as was a feeling of vulnerability when entering the garage at night because homeless people often use it as a shelter. 

Susan Green, an attorney at 606 Baltimore, testified that she was “held hostage” once by a man demanding money to get to a different facility upon discovering that Prologue was closed for the evening. She also said she does not feel safe going to her car alone at night.

Prologue “is a worthy project and also necessary, but the people in my building, we are suffering the consequences of an under-managed, not-properly-run facility,” Green said.

Dennis King, a Towson resident and senior warden of Trinity Episcopal, said he frequently encountered homeless people when he worked in the 606 Baltimore building from 1985 to 1990 — a time when the house that is now Prologue was the residence of the church’s assistant rector.

“I fully support the mission of Prologue. I fully support the sale of this property to Prologue,” King testified. “The homeless aren’t going anywhere. In fact, the problem is only going to get worse because they’re not going to have a place to receive services. We owe it to the most needy of our population to provide these services.”

In an interview, King said that Trinity has a binding contract to sell the property to Prologue and that the church couldn’t consider Gioioso’s offer even if it wanted to. He also noted that the Assistance Center of Towson Churches is nearby, and that it appears to draw more people to the area than does Prologue. 

King also thinks the “urgent” flier backfired and made people less willing to discuss alternative proposals. 

“I liken it to blockbusting in the city when I was a kid,” he said. “White neighborhoods were sent little fliers saying ‘Guess who’s moving in’ to get people to flee the city — and it worked.”

Prologue

Fred Weimert, the retired pastor at the nearby Calvary Baptist Church and a founder of the Assistance Center of Towson Churches, said he supports Prologue’s plan to remain where it is. 

“I think [Gioioso] was egged on by a few others, and I am sad that he took position he did and had that flier written because I don’t think he’s a bad person,” Weimert said. “He might be a person that would really be able to help us and help Prologue do things long term.”

Councilman Marks — the one who paused the grant-approval process to hear from opponents — said that “Prologue has operated on Baltimore Avenue with little controversy for two decades. They fulfill an important need in Towson. I have asked opponents where exactly they should relocate this center, and no one can give me a good answer.”

He also said that he has heard no opposition from the leadership of nearby Immaculate Conception Church about the center’s impact. In fact, Rev. Joseph Barr of ICC attended the work session and intended to testify on behalf of Prologue but had to leave before it was his turn to speak. 

David Marks

Marks said in an interview that certain conditions have been added to the grant that would prevent the site from ever becoming a shelter, and that would make it easier for homeless people and neighbors with concerns to reach Prologue staff after hours.

The newly created binding covenants read in part: 

“The Declarant shall use the Property to provide outreach, intensive case management, and housing services to homeless individuals and families in Baltimore County (“Homeless Outreach”) during the Covenant Period.  In no event shall the Declarant use the Property to provide a homeless shelter or to authorize overnight stays during the Covenant Period. … The Declarant shall paint the exterior of the Property no later than June 30, 2018. Within thirty (30) days from the date of Closing, the Declarant shall install an exterior sign with phone and contact information. In addition, the Borrower shall increase security measures at the Property to deter individuals from loitering when the site is closed.”

Marks said he intends to vote in favor of the grant at the Council meeting on Sept. 5.

Some in the community voiced concerns about the condition of the building, which is in need of major renovations — including the shower, which does not drain properly, meaning people must shower in each other’s standing water. County records show one code violation complaint against the property. It was from 2015 and cited “failure to remove ice and snow from sidewalks.”

Prologue

Rommel said that one reason the building has not been kept up as well as it could have been was that the church didn’t have the money for repairs, and because her organization didn’t have a long-term lease, she could not apply for grant money to cover the cost of upgrades. Once they own the building outright, she said, they can pursue those grants.

She also noted that despite what the flier alleged, the Towson location does not offer psychiatric rehabilitation. That is done solely at Prologue’s Pikesville location.

She’s looking forward to the matter coming to a conclusion so she can get back to center’s mission. The whole debate, she said, has been disheartening.

“We serve around 250 unduplicated people per year. If we weren’t there, where are these people going to be during the day?” she asked. “If you think it’s bad now, it’s going to be much worse.”

–Kristine Henry,
The Towson Flyer

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