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Freedom House Eyes Jackson Ward

The abandoned St. Luke's building could become a new place for Freedom House to serve meals.

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Freedom House has been searching for a new home for more than seven years. It now uses the brick building at 302 Canal St. to serve its 6 a.m. breakfasts and evening dinners. Each meal draws between 125 and 175 people daily.

Business owners and Virginia Commonwealth University have long expressed concerns about the visibility of the homeless so close to downtown, says Susan Sekerke, Freedom House's development director. City-owned and in poor repair, the Canal Street building has space upstairs for only 50 people to dine at a time, she explains, so clients often wait outside for their turn.

Moving into the four-story St. Luke's building, which stands on a run-down block of St. James Street, could solve those problems. And there, Freedom House could offer culinary and hospitality training for its clients as well as meals, says Executive Director Melba Gibbs.

Developer Ron Stallings, who's well-known for his work to revitalize Jackson Ward, owns the St. Luke's building. It was constructed in 1903 as the national headquarters of the Independent Order of St. Luke, a fraternal burial society led by Maggie Walker. The famous entrepreneur started her St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in the building. Stallings declined to comment on the possibility of relocating Freedom House there, saying the idea is too preliminary to discuss.

Lynda Sharp Anderson, a leader in the Historic Jackson Ward Association, says she thinks it would be great to see someone revive the St. Luke's building (it has been vacant for years). But having Freedom House as a neighbor is something residents will have to discuss, she says. "It should be embraced, or unembraced, by the entire community." Thus far, says Gibbs, nearby neighborhood associations seem amenable to the plan.

Many of those who come for free meals in the city arrive from Jackson Ward, Sekerke says, so the move would reduce clients' average walking distance and lessen the presence of the homeless downtown. It would cost about $750,000 to renovate the grounds and first floor, she says.

George Hartsfield, a longtime homeowner in Jackson Ward, says he hasn't yet heard the details of the plan, but he doubts the presence of Freedom House would help revitalize the neighborhood or brighten the setting of the city's new convention center.

"I don't see [the move] facilitating what the dream is for Jackson Ward," says Hartsfield, who is also the chairman of the city's Industrial Development Authority. "But I could certainly be wrong." — Melissa Scott Sinclair

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