City's homeless get help, but numbers rise

November 19, 1990|By Ginger Thompson

If 75-year-old Jim could have anything in the world, he'd want a small room with a kitchen and a radio.

He has been homeless -- roaming the streets of South Baltimore during the day and crawling up on a bench beneath a tattered blanket and scraps of newspaper at night -- for close to five years. And he says he's growing tired of street life, particularly now that winter is arriving.

"All I want is a place where I can cook," said the father of three, showing a toothless grin. "Then I'd just get two pads and two blankets. And anyone who wanted a warm place to spend the night could stay with me -- as long as they don't drink."

If homeless advocate Jaye Burtnick could have her wish, she'd hit the lottery, buy a row of houses and give Jim and all her other homeless charges any room they wanted.

Until then, she and community activists across Baltimore struggle to find the city's 2,400 homeless people emergency shelter each night.

That may be a little easier next month, Ms. Burtnick said last week after hearing Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's plans for providing emergency shelter for the homeless during the winter.

This year's plan, announced at a meeting of homeless advocates in City Hall, will provide an additional 315 emergency beds for the homeless from Nov. 19 to March 31, 1991 -- 117 more than the number of additional beds provided last winter.

Homeless advocates said there are about 735 emergency beds for overnight use by the homeless that are available year-round and an additional 500 beds for longer stays by those who are trying to get back on their feet.

"It sounds like the mayor is finally listening to us by providing more beds," said Mary Slicher of Project Place. "But I'm worried ++ we're still going to be turning a lot of people away at night. The homeless population in Baltimore is growing at an incredible rate."

Close to 50 percent of the state's homeless are in Baltimore. A majority of the public funds for their care comes from the state -- about $1.5 million -- while the city contributes about $200,000.

Joanne Selinske, director of the mayor's Office on Homeless Services, said that under this year's winter plan, free transportation to the various homeless shelters will be available nightly from 6 to 10 p.m. She promised that all those on the bus will be given shelter.

On nights when the temperature dips below freezing, the city will open public buildings for the homeless and suspend evictions for delinquent tenants.

The best part of the plan, said Ms. Burtnick, is that despite community opposition, there are plans to open a winter shelter in South Baltimore. Officials have declined to say exactly where it would be located, pending the approval by neighborhood groups.

"I love my clients," Ms. Burtnick says. "I don't care if they're drunks or heroin addicts. They're just sick, and they have a right to be sick. But they also deserve a place to stay so they don't freeze on the streets."

It's the drinking and drug use, misbehavior and sleeping on residents' porches that have threatened the opening of a winter shelter in South Baltimore.

Last year, the winter shelter operated out of a Mayor's Station in the 1200 block of Wall Street. This year, after boisterous opposition of residents there, several City Council members -- including council President Mary Pat Clarke -- promised that it would not reopen.

"Everyone on the block opposed it," said Pat Shiflett, a 23-year resident of the 1200 block of Wall Street. "Last winter, a lot of fights broke out in front of the shelter, one man exposed himself to a 13-year-old girl, and the people that couldn't get in the shelter slept on our porches and on the sidewalks."

"There's a definite need for a shelter in South Baltimore," said Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi, D-6th, who agreed that the Wall Street shelter should not reopen. "But the residents have their rights as well. They pay their taxes, and they don't want people urinating on their sidewalks."

Mr. DiBlasi said he was pleased to hear that a possible site for a South Baltimore shelter has been found. But no one could be more thrilled than Ms. Burtnick, who says, "My clients mean the world to me."

As she rode around the Cross Street Market, she pointed out the dozens of homeless walking along the sidewalks yelled out their

names and waved gleefully out the car window. She knows where each of them sleeps -- mostly in abandoned buildings or empty porches.

"The police come by, see me curled up on a bench and ask me, 'How can you sleep out here?' " said Jim, wearing a thick brown coat, two sweaters and a cap propped sideways on his balding head.

Looking over at his companion, an elderly homeless woman known in the neighborhood as Miss Iva, he adds: "I tell them I don't sleep much anyways. I have to look out for my belongings, and I look out for her. There's dangerous people on the streets, you know."

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