Homeless get a lift on winter nights


February 05, 1993|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,Staff Writer

Michael Lowery eases into a seat on an MTA bus and pulls the brim of his baseball cap over his eyes. For this homeless man, who has been walking the streets most of the day, the bus ride is the first time he's been off his feet for several hours.

"The ride is nice, but just resting sometimes is nicer," a weary Mr. Lowery, 31, says Wednesday night. The free trip to a Baltimore shelter assures him of a night's sleep in a bed -- a luxury not always available to him.

Mr. Lowery and his father, Robert, 55, who is also homeless and sitting nearby, doze on the way to a shelter. Both had walked many miles in the city earlier, each carrying a large bag of belongings.

Since 1988, the state Mass Transit Administration has donated a bus and driver to transport the homeless to shelters for free. The bus runs nightly from 6 to 9 from November to mid-April as part of the city's winter program to assist the homeless.

The "Bum Bus," as it is affectionately called by the homeless, is staffed by Salvation Army workers. It makes stops at six locations, transporting about 100 men, women and children nightly to shelters. The Salvation Army estimated that last winter more than 12,000 homeless used the service.

At 6 p.m. on most days, Richard McDonald is one of about a dozen people waiting for the bus at its first stop, near Broadway and Harford Road in East Baltimore.

Mr. McDonald, 27, has been homeless for less than a year. He said he's walked the streets all night after missing the bus and then being turned away from filled shelters.

He said many "nonhomeless" don't understand the stress on the homeless and how fatigued they are at the end of the day.

"It's hard being out there. Real hard," Mr. McDonald said. "I make it a habit to look for a job during the day and I'm walking all the city over for that. Just walking.

"Once in December, it was raining and cold and I had to walk from one shelter to the next because I didn't catch the bus and each one was full."

Mr. McDonald, like most of the riders, has a favorite shelter in which he prefers to sleep. But he'll accept a bed at most any shelter to avoid staying out on the streets in the winter.

"I try to stay at St. Ann's [Roman Catholic Church at Greenmount Avenue and 22nd Street], but sometimes you can't be choosy," he said. "Even if the one you want is closed, there's always another one the bus will take you to."

If all shelters are full at the end of the run, the remaining riders are put up at the Central District police station. But that's a rare occurrence.

At shelters where the bus stops, Anthony Branford, project coordinator of the transportation program for the Salvation Army, calls off the number of beds available. At the more desired shelters, the homeless surge to the front of the bus.

Branford said the number of riders vary each night, and does not necessarily increase in very cold weather.

"It depends on the time of the month," he said. "When they have some money, they seem to fend for themselves. The cold doesn't bother them much. But a lot of people, we'll never see. They just don't want anybody to know that they need help."

A man identified as Tommy rides the bus daily. He has stayed in several shelters in the city and knows which ones offer the best conditions.

He's walked all night in warm weather or when shelters are filled. He's slept in a wooded area near a railroad tunnel and in chairs in several hospital emergency rooms.

"But when you walk, you have to watch out because some places you might never get out of without getting beat up, and in the emergency rooms, you know sooner or later they're going to throw you out," Tommy said.

Tommy wishes he could stay on the bus all night because of the unsanitary conditions and violence at some shelters.

"On the bus, you feel safe and there's lights and it's peaceful," he said. "At them shelters, you've got to watch out when you go to sleep because you don't know what to expect."

Mr. Lowery, a mason by trade who has been unemployed on and off for the last year, walks the city daily with his 55-year-old father.

Last Monday night, when the wind chill made it feel as if the temperature were below zero, he and his father missed the bus (( and walked in the downtown area all night.

"We didn't want to stop because you get stiff when you stop," Mr. Lowery said. "It's not something that you want to do, but it's something that I didn't have any choice about.

"Sometimes when it's cold, you start to think about the bus earlier in the afternoon. You do want to ride," he said.

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