Ill, disabled, nowhere to go

Dan Rodricks

January 07, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

He was sitting on the bed, his long, spindly legs crossed at the ankles. He wore jeans and a plaid flannel shirt. His brown hair was long, straight and unwashed. His striking eyes were set deep in his face, dark sockets above high, hard cheekbones. His nose was long. His chin came to a point. He held out the bandaged hand and I touched it.

"What happened to you?"

He started to speak. His voice was jittery, as if it had a natural quiver. The accent was Southern.

"I got stabbed," he said.

His name was Jim. He was in his late 30s. Up from Dallas, he had stopped in Baltimore on his way to a new job. Things were hard back home. Recession had hit. No work. Someone -- a friend of the family, perhaps a relative -- had a job for him and had told him to come East. He took a bus or two, then a train. He got off in Baltimore one day in the fall. There were five hours to kill until his connection. So Jim decided to take a walk away from Penn Station. He had heard about the Inner Harbor and wanted to have a look.

On his way, men stepped out of the darkness and attacked him.

"These fellas jumped me," Jim said, the voice quivering again, and now a shaking hand, the fingers spread, gestured as he told the story. It was the kind of shaking hand in which one usually finds a burning cigarette.

He had been stabbed, Jim said. Bones were broken. The muggers took all of his money. When he got out of the hospital, he had nowhere to go. That's how he ended up on the bed in the old Catholic classroom on Greenmount Avenue. Once there was a parochial school at St. Ann's. Now it's a shelter for homeless men. The old classrooms with tall windows have been converted into sleeping chambers.

It was about 10:30 now, and the place was quiet. Radios had been turned down. The TV set had been turned off. A radiator in a corner hissed. Men in the other classrooms were already asleep on cots. You could hear their snoring across a hallway.

Jim sat on the second bed from the door in the convalescent care room at St. Ann's. There were at least eight other beds, each one with a man in it. Each man had come from a hospital. Each man was homeless. They had nowhere to go after the hospital. So they came here.

An old man with a white, tobacco-stained beard said he had to have surgery on his hip. Another man, dressed in pajamas and a robe, said he was recovering from a heart attack. He had had nowhere to go when his hospital stay ended.

A very heavy man, dressed in blue hospital pajamas, sat on the sheets in his bed. His name was Randall. His speech was slurred. He had had a stroke several weeks earlier. He gasped for breath as he spoke.

"What happen . . . to . . . me . . . could, could . . . happen to any . . . one. You could be . . . in . . . a store, like me, and . . . and . . . it could happen."

When he was finally released from the hospital, he had nowhere to go. He was homeless before his stroke, he was homeless after his stroke. For most of those who have the misfortune of being both homeless and ill enough to be hospitalized, the street is where they recuperate. St. Ann's, which might well be the only place that provides off-street convalescence, has but a few beds.

And they were all filled the night I was there.

This, apparently, is the best we can do.

The government might pay for the hospital stays for the poorest of the poor, but it's not about to open convalescent-care centers for these aging, lost men with bad hips or bad hearts. The situation is getting worse, too. There's no money. The demand for Medicaid, for example, is exploding to the point that, according to an official survey, four-fifths of the states do not have enough money to cover the costs. As we slide deeper into recession, the demand for Medicaid and welfare is going to grow. If the demand can't be met, we're going to have even more poor people delaying medical attention, or going without it.

But that's just one aspect of a potentially large and grave problem.

The people at the "borders" -- the ones who have tenuous jobs, the one who already are just a couple steps away from being homeless, the ones who have no savings, the ones who don't have skills to fall back on -- they're the ones who are going to slide off the edge first if this recession hits hard and deep.

It's going to take an amazing sense of selflessness and justice and compassion -- and powerful leadership -- to keep them from being lost altogether. "What happen . . . to me . . . could, could . . . happen to any . . . one."

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