Shane Thornton has been homeless off and on for seven years. He worked for the city briefly and has had part-time jobs, but nothing steady. Yesterday, he took a step toward getting off the streets.
He got boots.
"It means a job," he said. "That is the first thing people will ask, is 'Do you have boots.' You can't work in tennis shoes."
His shoes are cracked, but not completely worn out, and he has tried to keep them polished to preserve them. But they are not sturdy enough for a laborer's job. So his boots and the 700 other pairs to be given away to the city's homeless men in the next week offer hope of a job and a home, he said.
"They are beautiful," he said, turning over his new high-topped treads and whiffing the scent of fresh leather.
"This is like Fort Knox. This is like gold."
Dozens of homeless men filed into Christopher Place, a downtown shelter, yesterday and sat down in a back room for fittings and a pair of thick new socks.
When Eugene Pinkney sat down, he took off a pair of black tennis shoes and bent back the soles to show the two gaping splits that let in cold or rain with every step he takes.
A recovering crack addict whose arches collapsed once from walking too far in bad shoes, Mr. Pinkney said he might have sold these shoes for drugs several years ago. Yesterday, he saw them as a possible job and more.
"I see them as a gift from God to show me what you can do when you are not on drugs," he said. "It is love that you are obtaining."
The boots were bought at Sunny's Surplus, primarily with donations from members of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer on North Charles Street, which also has donated space for the annual program for the past five years.
Volunteers said they received contributions of about $17,000, and many people sent bigger donations than in past years, presumably to provide more help in the current economic slump.
"We were amazed at the amounts the checks came in for," said Sherrill Nash, a volunteer who helped run the boot giveaway.
Even so, the volunteers wished they had had enough money to give away twice as many boots, to protect the men from the cold, rain and frostbite.
"I feel it is going to be a real bad winter," said Michael Towns, a man who will spend cold nights in a vacant downtown building because he fears violence in shelters. "I appreciate this," he said.
A painter who was laid off 18 months ago, Mr. Towns is trying as hard as anyone to get a new job, a Christopher Place worker said.
After last year's giveaway, Mrs. Nash said, Boots for Baltimore got letters from social service agencies about at least 15 men who got jobs because they had boots. However, the boots probably won't last more than eight months. In fact, one homeless man who came to pick up his boots yesterday showed volunteers the worn out pair from last year.
But the boots will at least get him and the others through an icy winter.
As 45-year-old James Spann said, "It means no leaks, no snow and I might get a job."