Plight of homeless stirs sympathy, discomfort

February 23, 1992|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

Despite their own financial worries, Marylanders say they haven't turned their backs on the homeless.

But they say that face-to-face contact with street people asking for money is often unsettling -- and sometimes intimidating. The fleeting contacts between society's mainstream and its outcasts arouse a set of emotions as diverse as sympathy and revulsion.

James Morris, an Amtrak employee who makes repairs along the tracks, has been touched by seeing homeless people "off the railroad right-of-way, living in homemade tents in the woods."

Marcia Simpkins, a rail commuter, has been so intimidated by panhandlers outside Penn Station that she has felt compelled to ask police for help.

Face-to-face encounters often end with a split-second decision: to give or not to give?

More than two-thirds of Marylanders who see homeless people on the street say they give at least sometimes, according to The Sun Poll. City residents and blacks give most often.

Mr. Morris, 35, of Northwest Baltimore, says he sees homeless people a couple of times a week and gives frequently -- sometimes a direct handout of money or a meal to a street person, sometimes a donation of clothing to a shelter. Like others quoted in this article, Mr. Morris agreed to a follow-up interview after being surveyed.

"I know the problem is real, that not everybody out there is a bum. It's just hard times that has befallen them," he said. "I think people are really starting to look more at the problem now. People become more aware when they see things happen close to them -- to relatives, to friends."

Ms. Simpkins, a 38-year-old Roland Park stockbroker, has grown to distrust panhandlers. She feels that some beggars have merely found a way to reap tax-free cash. She prefers to give through charities to ensure that the money or food reaches someone truly in need.

"I can write a check for $100, know that it has gone to the right place, that the person is not embarrassed by it, and that there is no resentment toward me," Ms. Simpkins said. "I'm giving much more now than I ever did and much more willingly."

Maryland's homeless population is estimated at 5,000 on any given night, half in Baltimore. About half the homeless in shelters are families, a recent study showed.

The disheveled Baltimore street person is a caricature of homelessness, advocates caution. The "homeless" beggar may have a place to sleep every night while the family bouncing from shelter to shelter may never ask strangers for a dime.

"You can't equate panhandling with homelessness," said Norma T. Pinette, executive director of Action for the Homeless. "For the most part, people who are homeless do not look like they're homeless."

The largest group of Marylanders -- nearly 40 percent, mostly whites in suburban and rural areas -- say they never see a homeless person except on television or in the newspaper.

Margaret Boston, 47, a loan counselor from Glenarm in Baltimore County, said she feels "like I am totally detached from that sort of thing."

For many Marylanders, each street encounter forces them to re-examine their feelings about homelessness and, uncomfortably, to judge the other person's worthiness.

"Does the guy look like a wino, will he just buy wine with it or is he really needy?" Arthur George, 45, of South Baltimore, said he asks himself.

Donald F. Spindler, 51, of Ellicott City, who runs an asphalt paving business, said he makes a "spur of the moment" judgment: "You feel sorry for them, but a lot of times people bring this on themselves. A lot of people don't want to do better."

There is a weariness about the problem of homelessness -- not necessarily outright lack of sympathy, but frustration that the problem and the panhandlers won't go away despite countless personal acts of charity.

Merrill Bell, a 43-year-old Mount Washington homemaker and former social worker, said she feels "a sense of hopelessness" about the continuing presence of the homeless.

"It's really hard to go into downtown or even to the suburbs without seeing one homeless person," she said. "I'm tired of it. I understand that's a terrible way to feel. But it's like nothing is going to get done until the federal government decides to do it. It has to be a national effort."

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