Recession's victims cry out to legislators

January 25, 1992|By Patrick Ercolano

They spoke with eloquence. They spoke with fear in their voices and tears in their eyes.

Sometimes they were ambushed by their own emotions and couldn't speak at all.

During testimony yesterday at a "road" hearing of the House Committee on Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs, about 25 Baltimoreans helped to put a human face on the current economic crisis.

It was hardly a cheerful face.

Committee Chairman Henry B. Gonzalez, D-Texas, and committee member Kweisi Mfume, D-Md.-7th, sat at a folding table in the auditorium of St. Peter Claver Roman Catholic Church in West Baltimore and listened for several hours as the witnesses described how the recession has dramatically altered their lives for the worse.

"My main thought is to keep going till [a job] comes along. But I'm afraid I'll run out of energy," testified Warren Johnson, a former Genstar Co. employee who has been job-hunting for more than a year. "I look around and see I'm not alone. But I wonder, where do we go? I'm just hoping things will change, because there are too many Warren Johnsons out there."

The witnesses, ranging from homeless mothers to laid-off white-collar workers, were divided among five panels with the themes "Struggling for Shelter," "The Search for Work," "The Fading American Dream," "Squeeze on Human Services" and "Small Business, Big Problems."

A key purpose of the hearing was to gather anecdotal support for legislation introduced Jan. 3 by Mr. Gonzalez. The chairman's Emergency Community Development Act of 1992 would authorize $15.8 billion in federal funds for housing and community development programs. In turn, these programs would create more than 750,000 permanent jobs and inject $29.1 billion into the economy, said committee spokeswoman Julie Black.

Similar hearings were held earlier this month in Bridgeport, Conn., and Greenville, S.C. Committee members will hear testimony in Los Angeles and Cleveland next month.

Mr. Mfume, who grew up blocks from the 103-year-old church, reportedly arranged to bring the hearing to Baltimore.

Ms. Black added, "We hope these hearings send the message to both Congress and the White House that there are a lot of real people out there going through real pain."

The pain of the people testifying in the St. Peter Claver auditorium was obvious.

Unemployed architect Van Johnson, no relation to Warren Johnson, told the two congressmen, "I am John Doe. I am John Q. Public. I am the 'of' in 'of the people,' the 'by' in 'by the people.' I'm nobody, but I'm everybody. I'm proud to be an American, but I'm ashamed of America. And I've found that dreams are only for men who sleep."

Jim Gochenour, a former project manager with USF&G, talked about the frustrations of searching for work when decent jobs are scarce. He said he has "networked" among people he knows, phoned numerous potential employers and interviewed for jobs.

But, Mr. Gochenour added, employers have told him that "I'm either underqualified or overqualified. Or I meet the qualifications but the job was just frozen."

Delicia Ford, a resident of the city's Rutland Transitional Housing project, spoke of the difficulties of caring for her 2-year-old daughter and two teen-age brothers. Ms. Ford said that she lost her job when she had to stay home to care for her daughter's severe asthma. The family was evicted from their residence and went to live with the family of Ms. Ford's aunt.

"That got too crowded so a girlfriend of mine took me in," said Ms. Ford, who had to pause a few times when her voice broke. "We went from girlfriend to girlfriend," she said, until she was referred by the YWCA to the Rutland program. The program, funded by federal and state grants, provided Ms. Ford with psychological counseling and job training. She now works at the Rutland homes as a receptionist and a security guard.

Reading a statement by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, city Housing and Community Development Commissioner Robert W. Hearn told Mr. Gonzalez and Mr. Mfume that the witnesses' sad stories resulted from 10 years of federal cutbacks to urban programs like the Rutland project.

"The share of Baltimore's budget that is federal money dropped from 34 percent in 1982 to 11 percent in 1991. Last year we received $21 million in community development block grants, which is less than half of what the city received in 1978 . . . The federal government has abandoned its responsibilities [to U.S. cities] and the impact is devastating," Mr. Heard read.

The mayor did not attend the hearing because he was at the funeral of his father-in-law.

The two Democratic congressmen repeatedly expressed their dTC appreciation and admiration to the witnesses. However, some fiery words heated the chilly auditorium during testimony by Patricia Taylor, the executive director of the Penn-North Community Center in West Baltimore.

Ms. Taylor attacked the concept of the hearings and blasted the government for sending aid to Russia in the midst of an economic crisis in the United States. She said that she feared blacks would be blamed for the bad economy and then exterminated, just like European Jews during World War II.

And in a jibe at Mr. Mfume and other black politicians, she added, "I wonder about people who aid and abet [U.S. national leaders] who oppress [black] people."

Mr. Gonzalez replied by telling Ms. Taylor that the idea for the Nehemiah housing project in Sandtown-Winchester -- funded by federal, state and city money and visited by the two congressmen just before the hearing -- grew out of similar road hearings held a decade ago.

Mr. Mfume said, in an impassioned response that avoided mentioning Ms. Taylor by name, "It's true that everyone in Congress is not aware of all the problems this country faces, but I intend to make sure they find out and don't forget."

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