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How a 1970s survey taken in Baltimore’s emergency rooms and churches led to an Irvington homeless shelter

Baltimore Sun 12/20/2022 Billy Jean Louis, Baltimore Sun
Bagged holiday giveaway items surround Mary Slicher, executive director of Project PLASE homeless shelter. © Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun/TNS Bagged holiday giveaway items surround Mary Slicher, executive director of Project PLASE homeless shelter.

A survey Mary Slicher conducted in the 1970s ultimately led to her launching a Baltimore-based organization dedicated to helping the homeless secure housing.

The findings — that Baltimore City’s homeless population often lacked access to resources like career advancement and health insurance — were among Slicher’s takeaways from surveying organizations such as churches and hospital emergency departments.

Project PLASE, which stands for People Lacking Ample Shelter and Employment, was founded in 1974. Now, the Baltimore group is trying to raise $37 million in an attempt to tackle homelessness in the city for the next half-century.

A total of $36.3 million has been raised so far from a variety of sources ― including state and city funds ― but the project still needs $600,000, said Slicher, co-founder and executive director of Project PLASE.

The nonprofit originally started in a Charles Village rowhouse operated by the Midtown Community Churches Association. Its locations now in Charles North and Shipley Hill and its headquarters in Irvington provided services to about 1,500 people last year, including permanent and temporary housing, career development and HIV medical care services.

Bagged holiday giveaway items surround Mary Slicher, executive director of Project PLASE homeless shelter. © Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun/TNS Bagged holiday giveaway items surround Mary Slicher, executive director of Project PLASE homeless shelter.

The organization plans to renovate Irvington location, which spans about 70,000 square feet. The site ― formerly St. Joseph’s Monastery School — will increase its resident capacity from about 30 to 90, Slicher said.

“[The renovation] will create 56 one-bedroom apartments as permanent housing for homeless veterans, and it will also create 34 nice individual rooms for temporary housing for men and women,” Slicher said.

Construction is expected to begin in 2023, and will take up to a year. Real estate firm Beacon Communities will oversee the construction process with the Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., a Towson-based construction company, she said.

Silcher said Project PLASE was established when there weren’t as many groups helping the unhoused as there are today.

Malcolm Coley said he was homeless in the 1990s and was a client of Project PLASE.

“[The organization] is the premier of homeless places you want to go because you don’t have to leave. You can stay there 24 hours [a day]. You have to leave at 6 or 7 in the morning at most shelters,” said Coley, who now resides in Dundalk.

Homeless shelters typically have their own policy regarding when individuals are asked to leave during the day.

Slicher grew up in Catonsville but now resides in Union Square. She graduated from Mount de Sales Academy, an all-girls Catholic school in Catonsville.

In 1973, she earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and social work at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Two years later, she obtained a master’s degree in social work at the University of Maryland School of Social Work in downtown. In 2005, she received a master’s degree in nonprofit management from what is now Notre Dame of Maryland University.

Slicher said witnessing the civil rights movement partially contributed to her enthusiasm for helping people.

“The longer that I do this work, the [more] I see the value of it,” she said. “I can see it when you’re actually seeing the differences that it can make in the lives of individuals and families.”

But more needs to be done, she said, to address homelessness in Baltimore City.

The state received $750 million in emergency rental assistance funding, preventing the early-pandemic evictions that were projected. More than 82,000 households received rental aid, but now those funds are running out and there is no sign that the federal government will be handing out more.

In October, activists and homeless people protested the city’s attempts to clear an encampment on Saratoga Street and North Gay Street.

“I do not support raiding encampments of these folks who are otherwise unhoused, [and] throwing away valuables [including medications, food and clothing] of those without anywhere else to go. It only adds to the trauma,” Slicher said.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness, a Washington, D.C.-based research nonprofit, found that 8 million low-income U.S. households spend at least half of their income on rent. Rent shouldn’t account for more than 30% of a person’s income, according to financial organization NerdWallet.

“There was an increase [in the homeless population] during the last two to three years — partly related to COVID and to the economy,” she said. “Economic reasons continue to cause homelessness. Poverty and the cost of housing are the main reasons.”

This article is part of our Newsmaker series, which profiles notable people in the Baltimore region who are having an impact in our diverse communities. If you’d like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a short description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Editor Kamau High at

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