Needy can get left in the dark by 'points of light'


September 02, 1991|By DAN RODRICKS

Yesterday morning, a cool, fresh breeze came through Baltimore and the sunshine made everyone on Franklin Street sparkle.

A throng of men and women attired in splendid Sunday suits, little boys in white shirts and ties and girls in clean dresses stepped out of New Psalmist Baptist Church and filled the sidewalk with the kind of happy humanity that makes an old, tired city look young and vigorous again. Senior citizens stepped out of Basilica Place for strolls, and at Franklin and Park, dozens of men and women stood in line for food.

The busiest eatery in Baltimore might be Phillips Harborplace, but Our Daily Bread must follow as a strong second. It's the one public dining room in Baltimore that thrives during a recession. By 10:30 yesterday morning, the line for food stretched from Franklin a long block up Park, almost to Centre, and the last man in line was leaning on crutches.

Several other men carried white shopping bags bulging with belongings. Middle-aged and elderly women stood in line, too. There have been days recently when Our Daily Bread served more than 900 people. The streets of Baltimore are better when they are full of people, but not when the people are so poor they need a meal from a soup kitchen to carry them through a day.

In the last decade, this scene has become a permanent detail from the grand urbanscape of Baltimore. Each year the call goes out for more food, more donations, more help. Each year, some of the soup kitchens close for varying intervals because they run out of funds. The same happens with some shelters: Several of them run out of operating funds by April and can't reopen until the fall. But the homeless and the hungry remain.

In relative haste, we came up with a scheme to raise the $105 million necessary to build an unnecessary baseball stadium, we muster a force to knock the Iraqis out of Kuwait, but we can't seem to find a reliable way of keeping basic human support systems going.

Government backs off or doesn't bother because, in part, government knows that the charities -- "a thousand points of light" -- are committed. Politicians don't pledge new tax dollars to social programs because they believe they have nothing to gain from it. They believe the programs have been discredited by 10 years of Reaganist revision. So they let the professional beggars fill in the gaps.

Praise God for the professional beggars.

Drug abuse? Terrible problem. Not enough funds. Let's have a bake sale.

Hungry people? The charities have been forced to invent new ways of raising funds. Sept. 15, there will be a hot-sauce-tasting festival at Mencken's Cultured Pearl Cafe in Hollins Square. Donation is $5 at the door. Twenty percent of gross sales generated by the event goes to the Maryland Food Committee.

Birth defects in children? We've got the March of Dimes, and on Oct. 4, it's the annual Gourmet Gala at the Hyatt.

Muscular dystrophy? Money to support the families of children with this disabling disease? Money for research? That's Jerry Lewis' domain, has been for 26 years. Labor Day Telethon, coin cans at convenience stores, firefighters standing at busy intersections with white buckets -- we know it all too well.

Why should government step in when Jerry has been doing just fine, raising $1 billion for his kids? As a matter of fact, here's a cause from which the government tried to retreat.

Starting in 1980, muscular dystrophy was among those disabling diseases that could not meet the government's standards for the awarding of financial support for low-income families with disabled children. Across the country, Supplemental Security Income was denied to thousands of children because, according to a Supreme Court ruling in March, the government had based its evaluations on a cold list of conditions rather than assessing children's disabilities individually. As a result, muscular dystrophy, AIDS and Down's syndrome were not included in the program, and 425,000 children went without benefits for years.

The government used restrictive and obsolete standards by design. What better way to retreat from support of social services than by formalizing it into regulations?

The hard revisions of government programs that answer human needs have made life easier for much of the so-called leadership in this country. They do not have to worry about moral priorities as much. They do not have to stand up much for the little people; the little people have neither political muscle nor money to put into PACs.

Buoyed largely by public indifference and assured that the liability will be minimal, they can invest our money in high-profile projects -- a high-tech weapons system, a new stadium -- rather than in those low-profile human needs that never seem to go away.

Besides, there are plenty of charities to fill in the gaps, plenty of telethons, plenty of bake sales, plenty of firefighters willing to stand in the streets with buckets.

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