Homeless man has a mission to create Glen Burnie shelter

August 16, 1993|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Staff Writer

Last winter, a temporary shelter for homeless men around Glen Burnie kept Joe Knight Jr. from dying from exposure.

But in the summer heat, with the temporary shelter in mothballs until winter, only Mr. Knight's wits keep him alive.

Glen Burnie needs a permanent shelter, Mr. Knight says. And he is doing what he can to make that happen.

No permanent shelter exists in the northern half of Anne Arundel County.

In the past few months, Mr. Knight, who has been homeless nearly four of his 43 years, has been reading up on what government agencies, charitable organizations and religious groups offer.

He is working with Pasadena resident Louise Hartz, 39, an occupational therapist and advocate for the poor and the homeless. She helped start the soup kitchen at Harundale Presbyterian Church.

The two believe the difference between wanting a permanent shelter -- to replace the service that moves from church to church -- and having one lies in the foot-high stack of letters and books they have collected.

"I might have gotten a little fired up by the people who said, 'Not in my back yard.' I thought, 'Oh yeah? If I get some money, I'll buy a building and put it in your front yard,' " Mr. Knight said.

Mr. Knighthas an uncommon disability that affects his hands and arms and cost him his livelihood. Because he is homeless, he has been struggling to get adequate disability benefits and medical assistance from the government.

He has most of his possessions jammed into a gray backpack with a broken zipper. There's Gatorade to keep him from dehydrating, a ruby-colored umbrella to keep him dry, and a can of bug repellent to keep insects from devouring him as he lives on the ground. Occasionally, he plays guitar in the woods.

He and Ms. Hartz envision a small shelter open only from dinner to breakfast, providing food, beds, showers and a few programs to help homeless men get back on their feet. No drunks or drug addicts would be allowed. Anyone who earns money would have to pay the shelter a few dollars a day and put some money in the bank.

Showers are crucial because no employer would consider hiring a person whose appearance and odor are offensive, Mr. Knight says.

The place should be on a bus line, perhaps not far from light rail, perhaps have an arrangement for the men to do some manual labor for nearby companies, and be near various social services the men often need, Mr. Knight said.

Downtown Glen Burnie would provide the right mix, he and Ms. Hartz said.

But Bill Sarro, owner of the Scuba Hut store in downtown Glen Burnie, thinks a permanent shelter is exactly what the area does not need.

"These are not the kind of people you want to bring in to do business here," he said.

He said that homeless people scare off shoppers and that nearby social services offices, the Salvation Army and General District Court bring plenty of people who detract from the struggling business district.

But Mr. Knight, who has volunteered for the Salvation Army and soup kitchens, and Ms. Hartz are undaunted.

Flipping through the pile of papers -- which indicate, for example, that the Defense Department wouldn't give money for a shelter but would donate blankets, that Habitat for Humanity wouldn't buy them a building, but would help rehab one -- the two say they are determined to succeed.

They have roamed the north county area for weeks, taking down addresses of run-down buildings an owner might donate as a tax write-off and talking to a real estate agent who is a friend of Ms. Hartz.

Jacki Coyle, an organizer of the temporary shelter program called Winter Relief, said homeless people do not go away during the summer.

She said she recognizes homeless people on the streets who stayed in the temporary shelter during winter.

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