Hearts Place Shelters Homeless Families from Winter's Cold
With no city funding, and only 20 beds, Hearts Place offers help to Baltimore families without a place to call home.
For most of us, the holidays call to mind thoughts of home and family.
But for North Baltimore's homeless families, just surviving the season means making a choice between braving freezing night temperatures or being split up in city-funded shelters.
Men, women and children are seperated at every shelter in the city, some even requiring couples to produce their marriage license if they expect to maintain contact with each other under the shelter's roof.
Massive overcrowding, under-staffing and the chaos created by these factors, often creates an atmosphere less hospitable than a night sleeping on the streets.
Heart's Place Shelter, a 20 bed, privately funded homeless shelter, is the only one in the city that allows families of all backgrounds to stay together during trying times.
In operation every winter since 1988, Hearts Place Shelter has been doing a lot of good, with limited resources. Located in the basement of St. Johns Church, also known as the 2640 Space, the shelter is not much larger than an average Baltimore apartment.
The modest space consists of twenty cots, covered by grey wool blankets that fill most of the communal space, a long dinner table, an eclectic mix of couches making up a living room, and a two-computer "internet café" doubling as a library.
On a recent Monday evening, Hearts Place was at capacity, and the guests were busily wrapping gifts for loved ones they had chosen from the "store" filled with brand new, donated items.
Catherine Hudson, program manger, helped guests add final touches such as curled ribbons and metallic bows.
"It's important to give people a sense of pride," she said, handing a gift to a beaming young woman. "Especially at this time of year."
Though this is a tough time of year for people struggling with homelessness, the scene at HP is not depressing, or chaotic, and Hudson credits this peaceful, warm atmosphere to what is also one of their biggest challenges.
"We're small, so we can only help so many people at a time, but it does allow us an excellent staff to guest ratio ... everyone knows each other … no one gets lost in the shuffle … everyone works together to get along," Hudson said. "If you can't be nice, you have to get out. It makes for a much more comfortable situation for everyone."
The guests at the shelter agree.
Shawn McDuffie, of Baltimore, is a handsome, polite man who has been staying at Hearts Place since his family lost their house and doesn't hesitate when asked what sets Hearts Place apart from other area shelters.
"I'd sleep on the streets before I slept at any other shelter … [here] you don't have to worry about people stealing, or trying to start fights. Everyone tries to work together. It's the best place. It's almost like having a home, " McDuffie said.
It's a sentiment echoed by other guests.
Carlile Coleman, 48, a Charles Village construction worker, said he thanks God every day for the shelter.
"It's so much cleaner, and the people that run this place actually care. It's not a warehouse for people, it's really like a home," Coleman said.
And, indeed, it functions like a home.
"Everyone has a chore to do, a skill to contribute … it takes a village just to run this place, so we run it together," Hudson said.
Open Sunday through Tuesday, guests are allowed to stay at the shelter as long as they need, though "chronic homelessness" is discouraged. Each guest works with a case worker to create an individual plan to assist them in taking steps toward independence.
"Replacing identification, getting a GED, or help filling out job applications seem like little things, but changing your life is just that, a series of small steps toward a larger goal," Hudson said.
Hearts Place Shelter is always accepting monetary donations, washable winter clothing, Laundry detergent, and non-perishable food items, particularly coffee and creamer, as well as volunteers.