Once Pitier Of Homeless, He Joins Them At 60 Lost Job, Medical Bills Force Him Into Shelter

December 04, 1990|By Gary Gately

He always pitied them, he says, the people he had seen and read about, the ones sleeping in doorways, the ones panhandling on the streets, the ones whose teeth chattered on the TV news on frigid winter nights.

Just a few years ago, such images sprung to his mind when he thought of the homeless.

Then, suddenly, the 60-year-old grandfather's perception of the homeless changed. He became one of them.

"Homeless?" Bill says, his eyes widening, his bushy gray-flecked eyebrows rising. "I never even gave it much of a thought. I read in the paper about the homeless, you know, or you go downtown and you see them sleeping on the steps.

"But I never ever could have pictured myself being one of them."

After all, he had worked a lifetime, two jobs at once when it came to that, paid his taxes, raised two children, never asked anybody for much of anything -- never needed to.

Now, unable to afford the rent at a Glen Burnie boarding house or get into public housing, he calls home half of a room at Sarah's House, the homeless shelter at Fort Meade.

Bill, who asked that his last name be withheld, gestures toward a battered dresser with shaving cream, shampoo and razors on top. Jackets and several pairs of pants hang from a broomstick affixed to the ceiling with a wire coat-hanger.

"This it," he says. "This is what's left. This is home."

* First he would see the children, his son and daughter, his nine grandchildren, Bill decided a couple years back. All of them live in Texas.

It had been a good while since he saw them, and they lacked the money to pack up and head north to Maryland to visit.

So Bill, a widower who has undergone several operations for collapsed lungs, didn't want to put off the trip too long.

He rarely got away, and he figured he deserved the trip. He had saved some money and planned and worked long and hard for four decades -- as an electrician at Westinghouse, building high-tension cable wires for X-rays, as the manager of an apartment complex and as a painter.

Then his lungs -- and, soon after, his world -- collapsed.

A Boston firm bought out the apartment complex he had managed for 13 years, and there went his free apartment, a decent salary and good benefits.

Medical bills soared, as he needed several operations to put tubes inside him and pump his lungs with air. He soon resorted to Medicaid to pick up the tab.

He moved into a tiny room in a Glen Burnie boarding house and took up painting houses and commercial buildings.

But making only $200 a week in a job where work was sometimes hard to come by, he soon couldn't pay the $90 a week rent.

He joined the ranks of the homeless -- yes, he learned, it happened even to grandfathers who worked their whole lives -- last July.

A few nights, he slept in his big gray 1979 Plymouth, waking, washing up and changing at public restrooms, then heading off to painting jobs when he could find them.

He spent six weeks at Sarah's House, often waking before dawn to start painting jobs, before he managed to scrape together enough to move into another Glen Burnie boarding house.

Seven weeks ago, the money ran out again, and he drove the old Plymouth back to Sarah's House. There, he unpacked a few boxes containing his life's possessions: a handful of shirts and pants, a blazer, a few pairs of shoes, socks, toiletries, some pictures of his grandchildren.

He never made it to Texas, of course.

Once in a while, he talks to his children and grandchildren by phone.

They figure he's calling from his apartment. He can't bring himself to tell them differently.

"I just couldn't tell them. How could I?" he says. "It'd just burden them, it'd just break their hearts. They don't have enough to help, and they'd never understand it.

"I don't understand it, myself. I tell you, it just doesn't seem fair; it doesn't seem right to me. I can make a living. I can work. I still work.

Why should I have to ask for a place to live?"

* He looks not the least bit like the images of the homeless people on the streets he remembers.

He wears his graying black hair close-cropped, trimmed and combed impeccably. His face carries a healthy glow that comes from getting up at 5:30 a.m. and walking four or five miles a day; exercise helps his lung condition.

Returning from his daily walk and a little painting around the outside trim of the shelter on this brisk fall afternoon, he is clad in a gray Mickey Mouse sweat shirt, white painter's pants and sneakers.

His words come in rapid succession between long pauses, when he recalls how quickly it all happened, going from working grandfather looking forward to retiring and seeing his grandchildren to the homeless man sleeping in his car or in a worn wooden bed at the shelter.

Now time, like money, runs short.

Bill has only a few weeks left in the shelter, which generally limits stays to about six weeks.

He does his best to stash away a few dollars here and there but knows he can't afford rent now, with painting jobs growing more scarce as the temperature drops.

He asked county social workers about getting financial help to pay for a place. Yes, he was told, he could get a $210 a month in rent subsidy, but only if he stopped working.

And with long waiting lists at public housing, Bill wonders where he will go next -- and where he will while away the days of retirement he once looked forward to.

"You're supposed to have dreams about what you'll do when you get old," he says. "But I have no dreams left now, just surviving and finding a bed at night. That's my only dream left now."

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