Homeless in Baltimore

Joan Bowe Mitchell

September 29, 1993|By Joan Bowe Mitchell

FOR three years I have been a volunteer on Saturday mornings at Booth House, the Salvation Army's shelter for homeless women and children in Baltimore.

I usually read stories to the children and bring juice and cookies with my art supplies -- glue, scissors, crayons, etc. -- so that we can make pictures together. A fellow volunteer, Paul, who is wonderful with the children, helps pass out the supplies and encourages everyone, from 4 to 16 years old, with their creations.

Some of the children have only been in the shelter for a few days or a few hours, and they are extremely shy or perhaps just frightened in their new surroundings. Usually, by the end of two hours, they're willing to "tell a story" about their picture. That's how we end the morning.

Working with these children has been extremely rewarding. To see frightened children begin to smile and enjoy working with crayons and paper, sometimes (in the case of pre-schoolers) for the first time, is very satisfying.

Booth House, which was extensively remodeled and re-opened last fall, is an outstanding example of what a shelter should be. It has an attractive outdoor courtyard with plantings provided by the Lake Roland Garden Club, of which I'm a member. This fall we hope to have puppet shows on the little wooden stage in the courtyard. This is also the only outdoor play area the children have.

But no matter how comfortable or well-kept a shelter is, it is still not home for these children, and they show in the pictures they draw how much they want a home of their own.

The average length of stay is two weeks to a month, so the turnover in our Saturday class is constant. Just when we start knowing the child, he or she is gone and contact is lost.

The children range in age from infants (one baby was brought from the hospital where he was born) to 16, and many of the teen-agers care for the infants with maternal solicitude.

According to the state, homeless services last year went to 30,100 individuals and 19,600 family members, most of them children. What is the future for these children? Will they repeat the cycle of poverty and find themselves in shelters with their children? We must do more for them than just provide a place to eat and sleep. Somehow we, the citizens of this country, assisted by such agencies as the Salvation Army and the state and federal government, must see that these children do break out of poverty and homelessness. This can only be done with education, role models and hard work.

AIn June, eight of the children in the shelter, accompanied by six adults, went to the movie "Aladdin" at a local theater. They were fascinated by the superb Disney animation, colors and music. I was struck by the relevance to them of one of the songs, sung by Aladdin to the princess who shares his magic carpet, "A Whole New World."

Attorney General Janet Reno urged recently: "Let us put this world back in human terms; not in terms of machines, not in terms of billable hours, not in terms of goals and outcomes, but in terms of real human beings. We have got to reach out to families and children for whom the very threads of society have fallen away and become unraveled so that the child stands there too often alone."

Ms. Reno has called for a "national agenda for children." It is a plan that begins with a nationwide campaign to prevent teen pregnancy; to care for every pregnant woman in the U.S.; to provide education and preventive medicine for toddlers; to intervene in families where children suffer from abuse, neglect or learning problems; to prevent truancy and provide summer job programs that teach teen-agers work skills.

Perhaps if we could put such a program into operation soon, we would be on our way to a whole new world for the children in the shelter where I volunteer.

Joan Bowe Mitchell writes from Hunt Valley.

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