Ministry is small dam against rising tide of despair Social worker finds worse-off clientele

April 25, 1993|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

More and more the sad faces of street people appear at the Red Door on Cathedral Street; young and old; men, women and children; black and white.

To them -- poor, hungry, homeless or maybe just wanting someone to talk to -- Pat Jones is spot of hope in a city drowning in need.

For nearly 20 years, Mrs. Jones has been Emmanuel Episcopal Church's social worker, conducting a one-woman "Ministry of the Door."

She was invited to Emmanuel, one of the city's oldest churches, in 1974 to work with elderly parishioners. But social deterioration, including drug abuse and AIDS, transformed her part-time job to a full-time task of trying to help the whole neighborhood around the old church at Read and Cathedral streets.

The relationships she developed over the years have been largely replaced by passing encounters with "unknown people," street people in desperate need and who sometimes become abusive and profane when she says she has no more to give.

"It's a far cry from where I started," said Mrs. Jones. But at the same time the work has filled a void in her life, said Mrs. Jones, who has no children and was widowed in 1973 when her husband died unexpectedly at age 51.

Mrs. Jones, a former Baltimore County social worker, said her experience as the first volunteer social worker in the Johns Hopkins Hospital's General Medical Clinic from 1968 to 1975 prepared her to cope with almost anything.

"I never dreamed there that I was in training for here. I had no predecessor there or here [at Emmanuel]," she said, recalling the suspicion she met on her first ventures among the people who crowded the Hopkins clinic.

"I wanted to quit in the first three months. People just stared at me. They were people frightened with their own fears and they had never seen any volunteer there before," she said. "I had to break through a wall to reach the people."

Started as volunteer

Hopkins had a professional social worker in the clinic, but as a volunteer Mrs. Jones saw her job differently. She could help patients navigate the alien hospital world or simply offer a shoulder for people to lean or cry on. Eventually, patients looked to her for help.

"I could relieve the intimidation of going through the medical procedure," said Mrs. Jones, adding that a little hand-holding can go a long way toward making someone feel better.

Before joining Emmanuel, Mrs. Jones listened to the church's Sunday services on radio for three years while she was a #F semi-invalid athome. At Emmanuel, she found an affluent congregation with many elderly.

"Many of them had outlived their family and friends and were still living in their big, old houses and apartments while life around them was becoming more dangerous and complicated," Mrs. Jones said.

She has been called from home at midnight to dissuade potential suicides and has acted as next-of-kin to arrange funerals for parishioners who had no one else. She soon became the parish expert on resources and services available to the elderly.

TH "I was not the volunteer Church Visitor," she said, "but the skilled

person who could help direct them to what they needed. I do hands-on service."

When retirement homes began to emerge in the 1980s as havens for the elderly who did not need nursing home care but wanted to escape the responsibility for maintaining their own homes, Mrs. Jones acquired the expertise to help parishioners make the transition.

The Rev. Alfred B. Starratt, who brought Mrs. Jones to Emmanuel, said, "We had a lot of older people who needed more than hand-holding. They needed someone who could help them with their problems, and she did it."

As Mrs. Jones worked with the elderly, social conditions in Baltimore continued to deteriorate under the impact of federal cutbacks. Mrs. Jones said her job began to change, too. A new clientele appeared at the Red Door.

"In 1974, an occasional street person would ring the bell and ask for food or money but by 1984 with the federal cutbacks, it took off and the tide of homeless people began rolling in," she said.

Soon, at least 15 people a day were at the Red Door. She found herself making judgment calls about who to help and how. Circumstances forced her to specialize or be overwhelmed.

Need is great

Though contributions and bequests usually double the church's $3,000 annual budgeted discretionary fund, it remains a token amount compared with actual need, she said.

She still gives emergency food and medicine, but fortunately soup kitchens and other charitable agencies operate in the area. Now, she focuses on helping people threatened with eviction or utility cut offs.

The situation is not improving.

"I'm seeing reruns," she said. "In the last month I've had two dozen repeats, which says to me they're still in the same situation."

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