I noticed him out of the corner of my eye as I drove on Route 140 past Cranberry Square in Westminster. Standing on the concrete traffic island that divides Center Street at the intersection was a young man, dressed in bib overalls and a plaid flannel shirt, holding a cardboard sign: "Homeless -- willing to work for food."
My first thought was: "What's wrong with this picture?"
Seeing homeless people with signs asking for work or a handout has become a regular part of the landscape in Baltimore, Washington and other American cities.
When I visit my in-laws in Washington, we invariably see people who have made their homes in the capital's streets. Men live on grates in front of the Federal Trade Commission building. And across the street from the State Department, a half-dozen men have constructed a semi-permanent settlement of blankets and shopping carts.
Even though I have become inured to the sight of these unfortunate souls, this was the first time I had seen a homeless person advertising his situation in Carroll County.
After brooding a while, I decided what bothered me was not the presence of this man on a street corner begging for work, but lTC the realization that most of Carroll's homeless are invisible. A person shuffling down the streets pushing a shopping cart containing all his possessions is not a regular sight in Westminster, Hampstead or Mount Airy.
Part of the reason is that this is a large county. People can melt away into the countryside. Another reason is that people in this county are often very generous to those in need. The third reason is an exceptional organization -- the Human Services Program -- that runs Carroll's homeless shelters.
At the moment, HSP is struggling to keep its shelter for families operating. Last year, the shelter almost had to shut down after Gov. William Donald Schaefer decided to settle some political scores with the Carroll County delegation by refusing to fund HSP's request for $32,000. HSP had applied for a portion of emergency assistance money the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had granted to the state. Even though HSP's application was rated among the tops in Maryland, the governor refused to authorize the grant. At the 11th hour, when HSP was preparing to shut its family shelter, an anonymous donor sent HSP a check for $32,000 -- the amount needed to continue operating for another year.
This year, HSP found out the state will not be soliciting applications for the emergency assistance money, but will simply make allocations to those local governments and agencies that got grants last year. The result is that, once again, HSP doesn't have money to pay for the family shelter's operation.
Sylvia V. Cannon, HSP's executive secretary, is calling on the community to support her organization. Theirs is the only shelter in the county that allows homeless families to live together. Without this facility, HSP would have to send mothers and small children to its women's shelter and fathers and teen-aged boys to its men's shelter.
Last year, 24 families made use of the family shelter. These included 44 adults, two of them pregnant, and 41 children.
A variety of problems forced these families to use the shelter.
One couple lost everything in a fire. They did not have family in Carroll, and they had no money to rent an apartment. The man had a job in Randallstown and his wife took a job cleaning houses. They were able to save enough during their stay in the shelter to rent an apartment.
In another family, the man deserted his wife and teen-aged son. She moved in with her parents, but when the landlord found there were extra people living in the apartment, he threatened to evict them all. At the time, the woman was working two jobs and studying at Carroll Community College. Without the shelter, she would have had to quit work and suspend her schooling. The temporary tranquillity of the shelter enabled her to re-establish her normal life.
Mrs. Cannon, an eternal optimist, says that Carroll residents will come through with donations as they have in the past. "This is a community that really does take care of its neighbors, and I am sure they will make sure we keep this shelter operating," she said.
Mrs. Cannon has sent letters to churches and newspapers. She pointed out that a $28 donation shelters a person for a day. If 1,143 people donate $28 each, HSP would have enough money to operate the shelter for another year.
She even sent a letter to the Carroll County Bank's trust department to be forwarded to the anonymous donor asking if he or she would consider giving again this year.
As disturbing as the sight of that homeless man was, it made me realize that the homeless problem in this community is manageable.
People don't have to live in the streets as long as the good people of this county continue to support those institutions that are providing shelter and food for Carroll's homeless.
Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.