Cup in hand, tongue in cheek, 'beggars' make a point

November 06, 1992|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer

A man in a yellow windbreaker, plastic foam cup in hand, bore down on a solemn-faced young woman at the intersection of Fayette and Charles streets yesterday.

Like other Baltimore panhandlers, he was intent on getting some cash on the raw, rainy day.

But he had a different pitch than the usual requests for spare change for food or cigarettes.

He wanted the money for Henry J. Knott Jr., one of several developers who has had trouble making good on city loans.

"Excuse me, could you help us out?" Mike Bardoff asked the young woman.

"You see, the city has all these millions in unpaid loans, and we figure if we could get that money, then the city would have money for homeless services."

She thought for a second, took out her billfold and gave Mr.

Bardoff a dollar.

Mr. Bardoff's unorthodox approach was part of the city's first "panhandle-in." Members of City Advocates in Solidarity with the Homeless (CASH) raised money for Mr. Knott, whose HMK Limited Partnership owed the city $5.9 million for the Omni Hotel as of August.

The hotel is one of several high-risk projects that the city, under then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer, agreed to finance to help stabilize neighborhoods and promote jobs. But, while some projects flourished, others left the city with a legacy of debt estimated at $60 million.

Other developers with unpaid loans may be targeted in future actions, said Lauren Siegel of CASH, which feels the city's "Winter Plan" for the homeless does not provide enough shelter beds.

The Winter Plan adds about 300 emergency beds to its year-round number of approximately 1,200 shelter beds. But the total is about 1,100 beds short because the city's homeless population is estimated at 2,600 on any given night.

"However, Baltimore has a long history of public financial support for those who need it least -- the rich," CASH said in a statement released at yesterday's demonstration.

CASH's amateur panhandlers, coached by homeless people with more experience, worked the Charles and Fayette intersection during lunch hour.

They set up near the "cage," a $6,000 structure erected by the city to keep the homeless from sleeping over the grate on the traffic island.

The "Why Knott?" approach, as the advocates dubbed it, generated $11.45 in less than an hour.

"If we did this during rush hour every day for the next 10 years, we would have enough," said CASH-member J. Peter Sabonis, straight-faced. "We won't sleep until then."

The five panhandlers-for-a-day and two full-time panhandlers then marched on the Omni International Hotel, intent on giving the money to Mr. Knott to use for the hotel loan. An Omni employee impulsively added $2 to the pot.

But Michael Foelber, whose name tag identified him as the hotel's front office director, refused the money and asked the group to leave.

"I'm not a representative of Mr. Knott," he told the group. "He's no longer with the hotel. He no longer has any ownership."

The Omni loan, one of several unpaid city loans cited in an Aug. 2 article in The Sun, was inherited by Mr. Knott's partnership when it bought the hotel in 1984.

Although the partnership sold the majority interest to another firm, it still is responsible for the loan.

Thomas H. Goetzinger, administrator of the city's Loan and Guarantee Services Division refused to answer any questions about the Omni, referring them to his supervisor, Peggy Watson, who did not return a reporter's phone call.

However, Governor Schaefer has defended the program, saying it helped to revitalize the city and put people to work.

But the program has no guidelines for accountability, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke has noted.

Meanwhile, CASH still plans to send the money to Mr. Knott.

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