The endless quest for food, shelter


March 14, 1993|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,Staff Writer

Mark Brown begins the day at 5:30 a.m., rising from a lumpy cot in a third-floor dormitory at the Helping Up Mission in East Baltimore.

Mr. Brown collects the belongings he had placed under the cot's pillow and mattress and stuffs them into a torn blue supermarket bag.

By 6 a.m., he's sitting at a table with 75 other men who have spent the night at the shelter. There is little talk as they eat a breakfast of baked beans with small chunks of meat -- leftovers from the dinner the mission served two nights earlier.

On a recent Saturday morning, it is cold. Several inches of snow lie on the ground and ice glistens on the sidewalks.

As Mr. Brown eats, his thoughts are on the weather. According to the mission's rules, the men must leave when the temperature gets above 30 degrees. Mr. Brown shivers at the thought of spending a day on the streets in near-freezing weather.

"No one wants to leave, but at least they give you something to eat here before they put you out on the streets," he says. "I wouldn't mind [sitting on] the floor all day. It's the weekend and nothing is open so there's no place for us to go when we leave. The library doesn't open up until nine. I'll

probably just go to Burger King and sit for a while."

A while later, the men grumble as they get the news -- the temperature is above 30 degrees.

Mr. Brown, 32, has been homeless for about three weeks. He took refuge at the mission at 1029 E. Baltimore St. after he lost his job at a carpet company and his sister evicted him from her home during an argument.

He is one of about 100 transient men 25 to 45 years old -- called clients by the staff -- who stay nightly at the mission, which provides them showers, two meals, double-decker cots and an hour-long religious service. Many of the men doze during the sermons and hymns.

The previous evening at about 4:30 p.m., Mr. Brown and the other clients -- carrying their belongings in plastic bags and knapsacks -- began gathering outside the mission. They're allowed inside at 5 p.m.

As they wait for 5 p.m., they talk among themselves in low tones, telling how they spent the day. Some looked for work. One slept in a chair in the waiting room at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Another huddled on the vestibule floor in a Mount Vernon apartment building.

Rad, as he prefers to be known, said he walked in parts of East Baltimore and downtown.

"You've got to keep moving else you freeze to death," Rad says. "I'm not stopping, not stopping. You stop, you get cold, you get bumped [robbed] by the young boys."

Rad wears two shirts, a lightweight hooded jacket and a trench coat. He had another heavier coat that was given to him by a stranger, but he was bumped by several young men last month near the main Post Office on Fayette Street as he walked to the shelter. The bumpers took the heavy coat.

"I had that coat since the beginning of the winter and it fit me real good," he says, laughing. "They ain't hurt me, though. But that's another thing."

Some of the men who have become friends travel together during the day. After walking around the city all day, they are tired and look forward to sleeping.

"This is a life rope for me," Freeman Robinson, 37, a Vietnam veteran and West Baltimore native, says of the mission. "I try to always end up here."

Once inside, the men are given two tickets -- one for a bed and the other for dinner. Meals are served on metal Army-like mess trays and water is drunk from bowls. Supplying the men daily with paper cups is too expensive, says a mission worker.

Each transient, whose name is kept in a computer, gets five free days a month at the mission and pays $2 for every day thereafter. They get their money from government or social service benefits, or by panhandling.

Most of the men have been to other shelters in the city and, to them, Helping Up is the "Hilton" because they don't have to sleep on a mat on the floor and risk being bitten by rats, and they don't have to leave hungry.

0$ But they do have to contend with

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