Charity begins with home: St. Jude's honors formerly homeless, seeks funds

November 05, 1990|By Jonathan Bor

Nobody ever prepared Andrew and Amy Washington for life in a homeless shelter. They had lived comfortable -- yes, sheltered -- childhoods, Andrew the son of a Navy officer and Amy a suburban girl accustomed to flashing her father's credit card at local stores.

Around Christmas last year, they moved east from Dayton, Ohio, carrying $500 and the expectation that Mr. Washington would slide into a semi-arranged job as a hotel cook in Baltimore. Then, everything went wrong.

The job wasn't there. Their car died. They spent their last dollars on a hotel room and on food for their two young children and the one "on the way." They spent the first four months of 1990 living first in one homeless shelter and then another, dodging rats and worrying about the sort of lives that lay ahead for their children.

Yesterday, the Washingtons were among the 400 people -- most of them formerly homeless -- who showed up at the Baltimore Convention Center for a breakfast banquet hosted by a year-old charity called St. Jude's Treasury.

The idea was twofold: To raise corporate and individual donations for St. Jude's and to pay tribute to citizens who slipped into homelessness and then climbed out.

Moms and dads and children, dressed in their Sunday best, ate bacon and eggs, fruit cocktail and muffins at tables covered with white cloths and chatted beneath the well-blended harmonies of the Morningstar Baptist Gospel Singers.

"What we're really doing is paying tribute, homage to these people who paid this hell in life and had the courage to stand up and start over again," said a silver-haired Al Thumel, who heads the relocation office of Baltimore's Department of Housing and Community Development.

It is Mr. Thumel who, for many years, has reached his long tentacles into Baltimore to find low-cost housing for thousands of people who suddenly found themselves pushed into the streets and into shelters. For the Washingtons, he found a $360-a-month row house and a state housing subsidy that will cover about half the rent for a year.

"It was a matter of getting us a jump-start," said Mr. Washington, 29, whose family has been comfortably housed since April. Now, Mr. Washington works as a cook at the Cross Keys Inn, and he believes the worst is history.

"Things are looking up. It still hurts, but I think everything's going to work out," he said.

Four years ago, Mr. Thumel started hitting his friends and contacts for donations to help supply the newly relocated

families with the things they needed to get started in their new homes. It could mean a security deposit, the first month's rent, furnishings or pots and pans.

"We couldn't help these people by just getting housing," said Mr. Thumel, dubbed "Al-truistic" by Gov. William Donald Schaefer some years ago. "Without furniture, a house isn't a home. We turned to friends, and the friends helped keep it pretty well funded."

A year ago, Mr. Thumel incorporated his charity, calling it St. Jude's Treasury Inc. What makes it unusual is that its work is done by the people who staff the relocation office -- making it a private, not-for-profit charity run by city employees.

In a typical case, the city finds the housing and rent subsidies while St. Jude's uses private funds to kick in some household essentials. Mr. Thumel estimates that in the past year, St. Jude's Treasury helped "jump-start" about 980 households.

The line between the relocation office's work and St. Jude's Treasury is so thin that many beneficiaries aren't even aware that they received charity, said Mr. Thumel, who seems to like it that way.

"We don't advertise it to them," he said.

If Mr. Thumel is adamant about anything, it is his desire to smash popular notions of the homeless as chronically unemployed people without the will or mental wherewithal to get on their feet. Many, he insists, are proud people with low-paying jobs who are forced onto the streets because of evictions, condemnations, layoffs, fires or rent increases.

"They are fighting for their own self-esteem," he said. "They're fighting for their dignity. They are productive people. They are not bums."

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