Wall Street weak on homeless help

Dan Rodricks

November 16, 1990|By Dan Rodricks

"They said we were heartless. We were told that we had no soul, that we had no compassion," snarled the young urban professional, who wished to remain anonymous. His small community, West-William-Wall (located in Almost Federal Hill), had been embroiled in a debate about its responsibility to house the homeless of South Baltimore.

"Who said you were heartless?" I asked.

"The advocates for the homeless," he said. "And, by the way, the word 'homeless' was used completely out of context. These advocates keep calling these people homeless, but what we're talking about are vagrants and winos and drunks. A person who panhandles around Cross Street Market is not a homeless person."

"Come on," I said. "That doesn't make any sense. A wino who bums money still could be homeless. He could still freeze to death."

"I'd like you to read some articles from the local newspaper down here, the Enterprise. They'll help you understand. I'll fax them."

There were no "articles." All I received was a long, whiny letter-to-the-editor of The Enterprise, signed by someone called "Name Withheld." (The tone and contents of the letter were strikingly similar to remarks the wishing-to-remain-anonymous yuppie had muttered on the phone.)

"It is a noble thing they are doing, fighting for the rights of the homeless," the letter said. "But who is going to fight for the homeowner's rights? We have been backed into a corner again. I did not buy my house and invest half my time and money into it to let a moral minority like the shelter committee . . . flush my investment down the drain."

A little background:

Two years ago, Christ Lutheran Church was used as a shelter for the street people of South Baltimore. However, the shelter was never permanently established. Then, last fall, an organization called South Baltimore Homeless Shelter Inc. convinced the residents of Wall, William and West streets to "allow" the shelter in a mayor's station at 1211 Wall. The residents grudgingly agreed. But the authorizing legislation went through the Baltimore City Council with a sunset amendment: The mayor's station could not be used for more than one season of homelessness.

"It was on condition that they couldn't come back again," the yuppie explained.

"Why?"

"We didn't want them there."

"You decided that ahead of time?"

"Right."

But this fall, with the cold weather on the way, homeless advocates have been trying to find a new location for the shelter, and they were apparently hoping to use the Wall Street mayor's station again.

This has lead to some hard feelings. The residents of Wall Street don't like being pegged as heartless. They're really very interested in helping the street people of South Baltimore -- as long as they're shipped somewhere else.

"Why don't I have the right to enjoy my home?" the letter in The Enterprise wondered. "What gives the shelter committee . . . the right to go into someone else's neighborhood and change the lifestyles of the residents?"

I asked the anonymous yuppie what he -- or, actually, the anonymous letter -- meant by lifestyle changes.

"These bums urinated in front of people. There was flashing, defecation and syringes and bottles. There were fights all the time . . . They said they would have 35 beds but they must have had between 30 and 50 of them there on any given night."

There are few, if any, shelters in gentrified neighborhoods such as this one. Most of them are in poorer neighborhoods. In South Baltimore, street men have been hanging around Cross Street Market for years -- "Since I was a kid," says City Councilman Joe DiBlasi -- but there are more of them now, their needs more complicated. And most homeowners don't want all that near their doorsteps. Businessmen don't want street men in the commercial district. (Why do you think the city removed the benches near the market?)

Maybe the yup from Wall Street is right when he says, "We did our part the one winter we said we would." Now, another neighborhood should anchor this floating shelter.

Or, better yet, the Schmoke administration could establish a permanent location for it, such as the big median strip of Hanover Street, down near Cherry Hill. The old Inner Harbor Ford dealership might work. We could round up the homeless each night, give them balloons, trolley them to the shelter, then ship them back to Cross Street the next morning, refreshed and ready for the new day.

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