Homeless rally in Annapolis New legislation brings forth hope

February 10, 1993|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer

Terry Burke, a 29-year-old woman who was homeless just six weeks ago, leaned across Del. Clarence Davis' desk and all but shook her finger in his face.

"Can you survive on $359 a month, with two children?" she asked, referring to her recently slashed welfare check. "Can you?"

Mr. Davis coolly assured her he could. But the 20-plus homeless people crammed into his Annapolis office knew that they had won a victory of sorts when the Baltimore City delegate then barked to a secretary: "Hold all those calls, please."

"But your bill is being heard," the secretary protested.

"Let it be heard," the delegate replied, turning his attention back to seldom-heard constituents.

In what has become a February ritual, more than 200 homeless men and women from throughout Maryland traveled to Annapolis yesterday to try their hand at lobbying.

They didn't have expense accounts or expensive suits. They were naive enough to leave a legislator's office without a commitment, green enough to garble a senator's name. But they were ready to talk.

"I get a kick out of expressing how I feel," said Yvonne Johnson, president of the tenants council at Rutland House, a transitional shelter in Baltimore City that is also home to Ms. Burke. "I can take it out on the person I want to take it out on."

The homeless, the hungry and Maryland's poorest children do have registered lobbyists in Annapolis, working to advance bills supported by various nonprofit agencies. But over the past few years, the groups increasingly have relied on "real people" to put faces on their issues, at least one day per legislative session.

Already this year, there has been a children's day, with parents talking about programs that kept their families together. Last week, it was the Maryland Food Committee day, with 75 people who had used the state's anti-hunger programs.

But the homeless day, sponsored by Baltimore's Action for the Homeless Inc., is one of the largest and most vigorous gatherings. Yesterday, the 200 homeless men and women rode school buses to the capital, accompanied by social workers, activists and students.

They had a specific agenda: House Bill 1015, sponsored by Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore City Democrat.

The law would expand a pilot prevention program, drawing on funds already in the 1994 budget. In 1992, the program helped 340 families find permanent housing.

Its sponsor gave a warm welcome to the lobbyists-for-a-day: "Too often, we see those in limousines -- the banking interests, the real estate interests, the big corporation interests, the hospital interests. But we don't hear from you," he told those gathered at a morning rally.

Afterward, in Mr. Davis' office, Ms. Walker knew she should get him to make a commitment to the bill, but it was difficult to control the meeting.

Initially shy and soft-spoken, the homeless men and women began firing questions at the delegate, demanding to know why vacant houses couldn't be renovated, or why money seized from drug dealers couldn't go to homeless services.

Mr. Davis was cordial, but he made no promises and he turned many of the questions back on his interrogators.

He wanted to know if these lobbyists were willing to work more than one day a year. "If you are prepared to go to war, I'm going to get down with you," he told them.

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