Those lured to grate's warmth now find only cold metal cage

February 07, 1992|By Jay Merwin

The heating grate where a few homeless people had made themselves a warm bed in the cold urban outdoors is now covered by a black cage to keep them off and to allow for the free flow of fumes from the parking garage below.

A city public works crew installed the cage there yesterday, at West Fayette and Charles streets, to prevent what city officials said were hazards to health and safety.

The city has offered beds in homeless shelters for the grate dwellers, but some of those who have slept there the last few weeks say they prefer to stick together rather than stay among strangers in a shelter.

"We were worried about the ventilation with the garage down there," said Public Works Director George G. Balog. He oversaw the work yesterday morning as some of the previous night's tenants complained of being evicted.

Mr. Balog said that the people sleeping on the grate had been covering it with their blankets and belongings, preventing auto exhaust fumes from escaping the garage. He said that they had also used the grate as a toilet and that workers had found syringes as they cleaned the room below three times since January.

The city is responsible for the work, Mr. Balog said, because the grate, situated on the West Fayette traffic island between a Burger King and a Hamburgers clothing store, is part of the public right of way. But he said no other grates in the city were currently scheduled for enclosure.

The cage over the West Fayette grate was forged in the public works blacksmith shop from heavy black metal screen used on trucks. The two-peaked tent shape, more than 6 feet high, suggests a sloping big top. The heated plot it covers measures 9 feet, 6 inches by 13 feet, 1 inch.

Mr. Balog said the cage took four days to build, but he was unable toestimate its cost in materials and man hours.

Across the intersection, Steven Brown watched yesterday with a baby-blue blanket roll under his arm as city workers welded the metal mesh cage over his bed of the night before. He said he had been sleeping there on and off for about four months, but had given no thought yet to where he would stay now.

Mr. Brown, who is 33, said he had been without a home for much of the last seven years, largely the result, he said, of "problems with life and women."

He expected that some of the grate tenants would find a way to return. "I'm sure they'll cut that right open and sleep in there," Mr. Brown said, but not him. "That's breaking and entering," he said.

At homeless shelters, Mr. Brown said, he feared some of the other clients would rob him and he objected to their body lice.

His neighbor on the grate, John Rounsaville, who has been waylaid in Baltimore five weeks on his way from Atlantic City to Tennessee, cried from the sidewalk: "The mayor's killing us. We can't sleep there anymore."

He and Mr. Brown said the people living on the grate trusted one another not to steal as they slept, and they sometimes shared food.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke mentioned the grate last month in a discussion with reporters about the problem of homeless people who refuse the offer of shelter and services. There are 1,530 shelter beds available in Baltimore, he said then. And on the coldest night of the year so far, even after a van had driven around to pick up people needing a shelter, Mr. Schmoke said, there were still 36 vacant beds.

"What that simply means is that we had lots of people who didn't take advantage of the service," Mr. Schmoke said. "Some of them have a real fear of government."

Joanne Selinske, director of the Mayor's Office of Homeless Services, said her staff had been working to reach downtown street dwellers with offers of shelter and had started talking to the grate residents last October. Since January the city has been hiring more staff for that work, she said, financed by a recent federal grant of $600,000 over three years.

Some homeless people have accepted medical and social service help and others have agreed to move to shelters, including six who had been found at the grate. In addition, a shelter bus has recently been driving through the area each night to offer rides to shelters.

To people who prefer the grate to a shelter, Ms. Selinske says, "you are much safer and much less vulnerable in a shelter."

The Downtown Partnership, the public-private downtown management group, also started talking to City Hall about the grate last month, according to partnership spokesman Brian Lewbart, after some businesses had expressed concern about it. Mr. Lewbart said Downtown Partnership staff had told the grate dwellers of the safety hazards and had given one a temporary job on a maintenance crew.

Hank Bollinger, manager of Hamburgers clothing store next to the grate, said he had heard about customers feeling nervous about passing the grate dwellers while shopping in the area. But Hamburgers didn't want to deprive the homeless people of their warmth either, he said.

"There was a mental tear on it," Mr. Bollinger said. "What do you do? We were willing to live with it for a while."

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