Homeless find a friend's hand waiting to help make the step from shelter

November 04, 1991|By Ann LoLordo

The approach of winter has a particular poignancy for Illya Szilak. As the wind stiffens and temperatures drop, she thinks of the basement where her friend Veronica lives. It has no windows. No heat. Indian summer has waned. Frost has tinged the lawns in town, and days are growing shorter.

"I seriously, seriously have to consider where she is going to live when it gets cold," said Ms. Szilak. "Right now she's living in the basement of a friend's house. If she didn't have that friend, she'd be back in a shelter."

A shelter for the homeless is where marital problems landed Veronica McCall-Williams and her 3-year-old daughter last fall.

A year ago, Ms. Szilak and Ms. McCall-Williams were strangers: one a 23-year-old research technician at the Johns Hopkins University medical school, the other a 31-year-old data processor who had served in the Navy.

Both came to Baltimore because of their husbands. Their lives here never crossed until last November, when Ms. Szilak attended a YWCA-sponsored workshop on the homeless.

Today, Ms. Szilak knows how often Ms. McCall-Williams takes her daughter to physical therapy. She's helped Ms. McCall-Williams reapply to college so she can complete her bachelor's degree. She has wrangled with the state social services system to determine if Ms. McCall-Williams can remain on medical assistance and hold a part-time job. Ms. Szilak knows who cuts Ms. McCall-William's hair.

They met through a program begun at the downtown YWCA about a year ago that pairs families leaving shelter care with volunteers who can provide a ready ear and moral support as the families try to rebuild their lives.

The program has forged 30 relationships between the recently homeless -- most of them single mothers -- and volunteers who include a physician, city housing inspector, a graphic artist, a day-care worker and students.

It is one piece of a larger project recently begun by the city's homeless services agency to provide, for the first time, individual case-management services and housing for 290 families in an effort to keep them from returning to shelters.

Baltimore was one of nine cities to receive funding for the program by the New Jersey-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

"It's not that you're homeless or black or poor. If you don't have a support system that values you, you're sunk," Diana Smith, director of residential services at the YWCA, said of the importance of the volunteers.

Since February, when Ms. Szilak and Ms. McCall-Williams met, they have become more than "mentor" and "protege" -- the euphemisms for program participants. They have become friends, who can just as easily chat about Ms. McCall-William's new haircut as fume over unresponsiveness of the bureaucracy.

Ms. Szilak admits that initially she was anxious and somewhat reticent in her relationship with Ms. McCall-Williams.

But now, nine months later, she's as tenacious in keeping Ms. McCall-Williams on track with her goals as she is in pushing the state social services system to respond to problems.

The two meet weekly, talking sometimes for hours at a stretch. If they can't get together outside the Johns Hopkins medical research building where Ms. Szilak works, at her Mount Vernon apartment or in the Remington basement where Ms. McCall-Williams lives, then they talk on the phone.

"Trying to get stuff through the system for her, that is my main purpose. What I've been able to accomplish so far is to make sure she doesn't fall further down, that she's not out on the street and that she knows I'm always there for her," said Ms. Szilak, who, when she's not cloning DNA molecules in a Hopkins lab, is reading her favorite German novel.

"I am her advocate. I am her staunchest advocate. I have the advantage of having a nice home, food and not having to worry about money, so I can get angry at a system. I can get angry and try to accomplish things she does not have the energy or even the will left to do."

For Ms. McCall-Williams, Ms. Szilak has been a sounding board, a voice of reason when the young mother, frustrated by the circumstances of her life, has responded irrationally.

"There were a lot of people in my life who claimed they understood my plight," said Ms. McCall-Williams, who hopes to attend the University of Maryland Baltimore County in January. "I realized that wasn't true. Actions speak louder than words. Illya has been sincere. She has really given me some direction. She just seems to be much more rational than I am."

Through her relationship with Ms. Szilak, Ms. McCall-Williams has kept sight of three goals: to provide her daughter with the best medical care available, hoping the 3-year-old will gain use of her right arm that was damaged at birth, to obtain her bachelor's degree in management information systems, and to find a real home.

For Ms. Szilak, a Texas-born Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago, the relationship has confirmed some of her own life decisions.

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