Illness, alcohol, loss of work and hope propel men into community of despair


December 27, 1992|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Staff Writer

For drivers hurrying along one of Dundalk's mai thoroughfares, the little piece of forest hard against the railroad tracks is a blip in the suburban landscape.

For a group of down-and-out men in the eastern Baltimore County community, these woods are the closest thing they have to a home.

Most nights, when the streets turn dark and lonely, they gather out of sight, in the shelter of the trees, building fires to cook and keep warm, trying to hide the smoke so the Fire Department doesn't pay a visit.

At bedtime, they huddle beneath blankets they've stashed around town and retrieved at nightfall. In the rain, the roof may be a sheet of plastic scrounged from a trash bin. The chill from the ground soon penetrates their bodies.

In the warm weather, their numbers swell to 25. In the cold winter months, the hard core dwindles to eight or 10.

During the day, they usually head out, some to work, some to panhandle, some to drink, some to find bathrooms or some other place in which to wash up, others to search for food or clothing at pantries and social services agencies.

The stories of what brought them to the woods are as many as the men involved.

For some, it was the state's decision to take borderline mentally ill patients out of institutions -- leaving many on the street. For others, it was clearly a thirst for alcohol. For many, the drinking started after some disruption in their lives -- an illness, a layoff -- caused them to lose their grip on the bottom rung of the economic ladder.

They feel the sting of shame that comes with their situation and, when interviewed, want to be identified only by their first names.

'Pure hell'

One thin, intense 38-year-old asks that his name not be used at all. He sits on a log next to the embers of a dead fire and looks out into the woods.

"This place is pure hell," he says.

He shivers, from the cold breeze that cuts through his thin sweat shirt and from the memories of life in the woods. That's where he landed after growing up in 19 foster homes, some time on the city streets and a stint traveling with a carnival. He's 38 now and out of the woods, living in a nearby apartment, painting for a living. But he knows he's only one mistake away from returning.

"Just lie down in there," he says, pointing to a bed of thorny vines beneath a ceiling of tree limbs now barren of leaves. "That's about as soft as it gets around here. When it's real cold, you dig a hole and get down in it."

He tells of catching turtles in the creek that runs through the woods, splitting them open and cooking the meat. "Sometimes you're so hungry, you eat leaves and bark," he says, tears coming to his eyes.

Nearby, three men share a bottle of Wild Irish Rose around a fire they built in a section of concrete pipe. A rusty car hood leans up against the pipe, holding down the smoke and distributing the heat through its metal.

"My family's let me back in so, I'm just down here visiting," says Joe, who spent several months earlier this year in these woods. "These are my friends, some of the best people I've ever met."

Alan, who works on and off hanging drywall, says family problems put him in the woods, too. "I don't get along with my stepfather," he said. "My mother takes care of me. I'm all cleaned up now because she let me in this morning to have a shower. But then I had to leave."

A decade in the woods

Jim's the veteran of the group, the only one sporting the grimy multilayered dress associated with the homeless. When the chill causes a visitor's nose to start running, he quickly produces some swatches of paper from one of his pockets, explaining that when you're on the streets, you have to be prepared.

At 52, Jim has spent the better part of a decade in the woods and is something of a fixture in Dundalk. He tells of drinking $54 bottles of scotch back when he was working down at Sparrows Point or in Dundalk's long-closed whiskey factory. Now he's taking a swig from a $3 bottle of wine. Empties litter the woods in every direction.

The three are sharing a local newspaper, both for its information and its protection from their damp seats on a log. Jim's blue eyes are bright, his mind quick as he comments on everything from state politics to the habits of the local police.

Last summer a friend dropped off a couch for him. Jim says he pulled it into the woods so he would have a soft place to sleep. While he was enjoying that small luxury, some local kids decided that Jim was an easy target. They beat him up, broke a couple of ribs.

"They're always making fun of us, calling us homeless and stuff," Alan says. "They just don't know what it's like. They could easily end up like this."

"Yeah, I want to see some of these kids when Mommy and Daddy stop taking care of them," Jim said. "Of course, some of them stay with Mommy and Daddy until they are 50 years old."

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