The Hand That Feeds

MARILYN GEEWAX

July 07, 1993|By MARILYN GEEWAX

ATLANTA. — Atlanta -- The wall separating the urban poor from mainstream America is growing higher each day as lawlessness and violence add layer upon layer of distrust. The murder of Jefferson Greene, a volunteer delivering food to Atlanta's poor, just jacked up the wall again.

Mr. Greene, a 40-year-old father of five, believed God had called him to help the homeless and inner-city poor. Through a group he helped organize, Loaves and Fishes Ministry, he brought food and comfort to people lacking both. While making a food dropoff to a housing project in Atlanta last month, he was blown away by a shotgun blast. Police have arrested two boys, aged 15 and 16.

For those trying to provide the poor with food and shelter, Mr. Greene's murder was one more weight on a heavy load. The work of rounding up supplies, organizing distribution routes and finding volunteers is extremely difficult. Still, thousands of Americans perform such tasks each day so that others will eat.

Legions of homeless people sleep in shelters each winter because enough volunteers are dedicated to helping their fellow citizens keep warm and dry at night. In virtually every U.S. city, church people -- not government officials -- are the ones making sure frozen skeletons don't routinely turn up on our sidewalks.

But trying to be one of those volunteers keeps getting harder. With powerful guns easily available, hungry kids can turn into brutal killers in a heartbeat. Volunteers, no matter how loving, are easy targets for kids whose response to any frustration is explosive violence.

I know my desire to help others is being stunted by my even greater desire to stay healthy. I worked a couple of evenings at a soup kitchen, but quickly gave up plans to become a regular volunteer. I just couldn't figure out how to get into the building safely. The parking lot was surrounded by rough men; walking there was out of the question.

At a shelter with a much more secure parking lot, I volunteered one night to help watch over the residents. Most appeared to be in their 30s and 40s. All of them treated the volunteer staff with deference.

But it occurred to me that 15 years from now, a night in a homeless shelter may be too dangerous a job for anyone without police training and a weapon. The kid who is now a 15-year-old gunslinger may well become a 30-year-old homeless man. Will that person be too violent to stay in a shelter after years of watching people get gunned down?

Chances are that today's 40-year-old shelter resident never saw his classmates get blown to bits in junior high school. As a child, he didn't have bullets from semi-automatic weapons whizzing by his bedroom window at night.

Children today grow up amid so much violence it's hard to imagine them becoming docile adults willing to line up quietly for dinner at a soup kitchen. It's possible that many kids will turn out to be too volatile and undisciplined ever to work -- or even to accept charity.

Guns and drugs and endless cycles of violence are fraying the last lifelines connecting the inner-city poor with the rest of America. If volunteers start to feel too threatened to help the poor, shelters and soup kitchens will have to close. Then what?

Marilyn Geewax writes editorials for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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