Workers finishing up the demolition of row-home space in West Baltimore, soon to be CHICA. Photo Courtesy of Dalila Muir

By Abigail Matthews
Special to The Afro

West Baltimore is about to get a new home to help the homeless through the arts. The Coppin Heights Industrial Complex for the Arts (CHICA) in the 1700 block of Ashburton Street is scheduled to open in July. The project was created by Baltimore resident, Dalila Muir to help clean up the streets, and provide mental health care and housing to the homeless.

Muir said she started CHICA to give homeless people and those struggling with mental health issues a clean and safe space to better themselves. CHICA’s goal is to also give its clients resources to build a better life. The independently-funded program will have living spaces along with areas to explore different art forms. CHICA will also implement a skills-based training program.  

This is not new work for Muir. 

She has been advocating for the homeless for the last seven years. The construction of CHICA is happening next door to an already renovated row home for mental health care and assistance to the homeless. Muir said she and her sister have provided mental health care services for clients all around the DMV area servicing over 60 clients. Many of their clients are still being affected from childhood trauma. 

Muir said she can identify with their experiences. She said she dropped out of Morgan due to mental health issues that were not addressed and for time wound up being homeless herself.

“I find it interesting that I am back in West Baltimore developing homes for homeless people with mental health issues, and I was once one,” said Muir. 

Muir went on to graduate from Baltimore City Community College working in education before venturing into community development work. 

According to CHICA, it supplies most of its own funding for construction and other project materials. People facing homeless and mental health issues can apply for residential rehabilitation programs (RRPs) funded by government agencies, but space and funding are limited. Sometimes there is a gap in funding to cover services for clients. 

“In many of the RRP programs all of their money is taken to participate in the program. It strips them that level of dignity and leaves them vulnerable to other types of activity to get money,” said Muir.

Muir said that is why CHICA is looking at different funding models to allow the program to operate well and to also ensure that their clients have a bit more financial security. 

A 2020 report from the Baltimore City Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services found there were 2,193 people facing homelessness in Baltimore on any given night. The report also showed the homeless are often susceptible to other issues such as poor mental health, drug addiction, and other illnesses.

Ash-Co-East/Coppin Heights Neighborhood Association President and Coppin Heights native, Shelia Davis has watched the area evolve since 1963. Davis and the association continue to fight for what once was a flourishing neighborhood using different initiatives and programs. 

“It’s so difficult to get past the grime because people have these ideas of where their trash should be,” said Davis. “I know what the neighborhood should look like and what it did for me. We can’t be a concrete jungle.” Davis points to the connection of trash to the overall quality of life of a neighborhood and how that quality of life can influence people in recovery of any kind. 

One of CHICA’s partners is College Park based UpliftedHands. The organization has assisted CHICA and the ongoing community issues found in West Baltimore and beyond. 

Program Director Marcel Martin has 25 years of experience in mental health work. Martin said creating a safe, fun, and comfortable environment for veterans and other special groups is what makes their living space become a home.  

“One of the key things I think is important is a really active day for seniors or people with mental health or substance abuse issues. They need to know their day has been productive and meaningful,” said Martin. “Some of the primary issues are availability of quality programming. I’m looking forward to see CHICA grow.”

Muir is hoping that the full range of arts programming at CHICA will help their clients get on the road to recovery faster. 

Awaiting CHICA’s opening, it is welcoming assistance and spreading the word about the project. Food donations are high on CHICA’s wish list. Muir’s goal is to continue buying up vacant properties in Baltimore and one day be able to house and help 100 homeless people.

For more information, check out CHICA’s website: 

Abigail Matthews is a Strategic Communication major at Morgan State University.