Bureaucracy blames victims of vandalism

DAN RODRICKS

July 17, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

Following up on recent columns . . .

The Dobrys, Joe and Delores, finally are getting some action from City Hall. But it's not exactly what they were hoping for.

Joe and Delores are the folks -- nice folks, I might add -- from Bradford Street, in East Baltimore, who were burned out of their home of 40 years. The fire, an arson, started in a vacant rowhouse next door -- the very rowhouse about which the Dobrys had been complaining for months.

According to Joe and Delores, the owner died last year, the house became vacant, and all the problems commonly associated with vacant houses moved into Bradford Street.

There was trash. There were junkies. Vandals broke into the empty house; thieves stole all the copper pipes. (When they stripped the plumbing, thieves left water pouring into the basement and, eventually, three cellars, including the Dobrys', were flooded.) Joe called the cops. Delores called the city.

The Department of Housing and Community Development cited the vacant property for numerous housing code violations in February. But it wasn't until March that the empty rowhouse was declared officially unoccupied, and not until late April that it was declared vacant. The rowhouse was finally scheduled to be boarded up; a work order for the job was issued June 21 by the city's housing office. The fire occurred June 25.

The Dobrys have been living with a daughter in Essex. Since the fire, a television set, videocassette recorder and an air-conditioner have been stolen from their Bradford Street house. But here's the kicker: The Dobrys now are getting lots of attention from city housing officials.

They keep getting notices. Notices about their fire-damaged rowhouse. Hurry up and clean it up, they're told, make it "fit for human habitation," or tear the place down. Joe and Delores are understandably amazed -- and angered -- by all this sudden, misdirected attention from the city. Better late than never, right?

I received a great deal of response to last week's column on the public's unhappiness with panhandlers and, in the face of it, that bizarre effort to help panhandlers be more, shall we say, presentable. One letter, from a social worker, was particularly trenchant and challenging.

"I've worked with Maryland's homeless for nine years," wrote Lauren Siegel, "and there are chronically homeless mentally ill panhandlers, there are homeless families who panhandle. . . . Any attempt we, as a society, make to separate the deserving from the undeserving poor is doomed to failure because human need cannot be measured based on our perceptions of who is a con artist and who is truly destitute without the risk of increased poverty, rage and deprivation for thousands of our fellow citizens. We must strive to do better than that. If we distribute resources more equitably -- food, clothing, housing, medical care -- and ensure that everyone has access to each, as well as provide greater access to job training and higher education, there might be less panhandling."

How can you argue against that?

The gripe about panhandlers -- commuters are annoyed by them or think they are scam artists -- is an intellectual, even moral, convenience. It serves those who are predis posed to dismiss the poor and to regard poverty generally as an unsolvable social problem. The complaint about panhandlers is really trivial. What's not trivial is the fact that two major shelters -- one for women and children, one for men -- will not be reopening this fall because of lack of funds. And we still hear far more outrage about panhandlers than we do about that.

*

Each year I get to meet some courageous men and women. Louis Coleman was one. He turned up in this column in March. Thirty years old and faced with terminal cancer, he was determined to live every minute left to him. He was getting home hospice care through Sinai Hospital. He wasn't about to seek out Jack Kevorkian, either.

"My doctor doesn't tell me how long I have to live. I don't ask him. We don't talk about that. We talk about treatment," Louis said. "I don't feel I'm stretching out my death; I'm stretching out my life."

Affirming his determination to live, Louis married his high school sweetheart and longtime companion on the first day of spring.

Jennifer Coleman was with Louis when he died this week. His funeral will be held today in the church where he and Jennifer were married, White Stone Baptist, on Baker Street, West Baltimore.

I was awed by Louis' courage, his honesty, his loyalty and commitment to Jennifer and his three sons. I had called him a couple of times, hoping he could go fishing. One time, he was feeling too bad to go; another time something -- I don't remember what -- came up. I sure wish I had persisted. I sure

wish I had taken him fishing.

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