Trivializing the problem of homelessness

DAN RODRICKS

July 10, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

And now we're telling the panhandlers to smile.

You! Over there! The one with the wrinkled cardboard sign -- snap out of it! Don't be down and troubled, angry and gruff. Put on a happy face. It'll make you a more effective panhandler.

Is this beautiful? This must be why I call Baltimore the Oz of the Chesapeake.

A zillion tourists are coming to town for All-Star game festivities, and once again Baltimore must wear a big smiley face. Record-setting temperatures and record-setting homicide rates -- we have both! We have clean streets. We have FanFest. We have music.

And, if a little project started by City Advocates in Solidarity with the Homeless (CASH, get it?) is effective, we'll have grinning panhandlers on every corner near Camden Yards.

Maybe Hiken could outfit them with tuxedos. (You think I jest? In an attempt at municipal beautification, a tuxedo house in Los Angeles gave dozens of out-of-fashion formals, cummerbunds and all, to L.A.'s homeless during the Summer Olympics of 1984. You can look it up.)

I think I know what CASH is trying to do.

Its members care about and work with the homeless. But they understand that public sympathy is limited and fragile.

A lot of Americans are sick of the homeless. They think the numbers have been exaggerated. Rush Limbaugh, who ridicules them daily for millions of listeners on national radio, believes the homeless wouldn't be homeless if they just snapped out of it, took some responsibility for themselves, got a job, rented a place, had a life.

Enter the panhandlers: "Homeless, Will Work For Food."

Some people resent them because they see panhandlers as able-bodied men and women who exploit the charitable nature of ordinary folks. For others, panhandlers are reminders of the stagnant economic times, the dreary results of the war on poverty, the decline of cities. Panhandlers are considered bums and scam artists by people who enjoy the simplicity of that

generalization.

But keep this in mind. Though their numbers have grown, panhandlers do not represent the entire homeless population. It's their high visibility that gives people the impression they do. To believe that is to trivialize a very real problem.

CASH recognizes the danger of trivialization. So they're out to rehabilitate the panhandlers, to make them somehow more polite, more palatable.

Unfortunately, it won't work. It's too late. Panhandlers have already been dismissed as leeches, even though some of them might be on the street because of legitimate need.

Far more worthy of our attention are the chronically homeless and the episodically homeless, the men and women and children who end up on the streets because of family troubles, mental illness, physical disability or, as is frequently the case, the lack of a solid network of friends and relatives.

They are homeless in winter. They are homeless in the summer. They are relatively invisible people. But they pack the city's shelters each night.

That is, when the shelters are open, and they aren't always open.

Two of the city's most important seasonal shelters -- St. Mark's Lutheran Church, 1900 St. Paul St., and St. Ann's Roman Catholic Church on Greenmount Avenue -- will not reopen this fall because of lack of funds. That was the difficult decision reached recently by the board of the Midtown Churches Community Association, which faced $250,000 in cuts in state and federal funding for its programs -- and not enough private donations to make up the difference.

The shelter at St. Mark's was set up for 45 families; it was always filled with women and children. The shelter at St. Ann's was set up to sleep 100 men. Both have been closed since April. They will be dark this fall and winter.

"What distresses me," says Esther Reaves, Midtown's executive director, "is we're seeing an upswing of need while we're seeing a downswing in funding."

And the children keep coming. That's what distresses Reaves the most -- the more than 40 families bringing more than 90 children to St. Mark's shelter each month during winter, and the hundreds of children who come for breakfast at Midtown's soup kitchen, Manna House, each month during the summer. Manna House served 695 kids in July of last year, 911 in August. The numbers should be about the same this summer.

I don't know how many panhandlers there are on the streets of Baltimore.

But I know this: Their number and "the problem" they create is trivial compared to the real numbers, the real problems of homelessness and hunger.

And you can't put a smiley face on them.

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