Her flock is safe, but Bea Gaddy is still worried

January 23, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The old man in the wheelchair has no feet. The fellow sitting next to him has feet, at least for the moment, but they're frost-bitten.

Across from them are a couple of kids in overcoats, huddled at a table and paying no attention to a television screen where people on a quiz show are winning money and prizes.

Nearby, babies sleep in beds watched over by women with nowhere to go.

This is Bea Gaddy's place in the 2400 block of W. Baltimore St., the empty warehouse she converted into a homeless shelter two weeks ago, where a 14-year-old kid named Travis is bouncing a (( tennis ball on a concrete floor last Friday morning and feeling as if he's found a home.

Travis arrived here the previous day, brought in from the cold with his mother and his brother and sister and a 7-month-old baby.

They were all living at a friend's house for a while, but the friend moved away.

"My mom found this," Travis says.

"How do you like it?" somebody asks.

There are dozens of people in the big room. There's an open wall in the back, covered by a plastic sheet, where men are creating a new doorway and trying to keep out gusts of frigid wind, while other people are fixing up lighting, cooking meals, sweeping the floor, making beds, hauling furniture about, climbing onto ladders, fixing plumbing and generally making an endless, clattering ruckus.

"I like it fine," says Travis, oblivious to all of this activity. "I feel safe here."

His last place was the friend's apartment on Baker Street. He says there was a lot of shooting there, including one time when he saw some men firing from a doorway at a passing car.

"Nobody would come in here and hurt anybody," a woman named Vivian Boone, standing nearby, says assuringly.

"If they tried to hurt anybody in here, they'd never get out.

"This is like a family in here. Nobody's got anything, but we got it together."

She's 35 years old. The city's been on ice this week, and she's one of about 75 people who found their way here, either by word of mouth, or because somebody found them shivering in the cold and brought them in.

For a couple of days, it looked as if they'd have to go back outside. There was confusion over some city housing code rules, and threats of closing the place down and sending its residents somewhere else, but on Friday the Housing Department gave the go-ahead to keep it open.

So a small community has evolved here.

The place isn't much, but it's salvation for those whose lives have fallen apart. Gaddy's place on Chester Street was overflowing, so she found this abandoned warehouse, once home to a tomato-canning plant, and opened it on Jan. 10.

"The first night," she says now, "the police were bringing people in all night long."

She sweeps a hand around this big room now: a kitchen area here, with a big refrigerator and tables; rows of beds beyond that, all neatly covered; another sleeping area, strictly for women and children; and, down a darkened hallway, a couple of bathroom areas.

They're still working on the heating.

It's toasty near the kitchen, but frosty in the bathrooms and cool enough in the sleeping areas that blankets will never be refused. But, compared to the streets, this place is Bermuda.

"People come in here," says Velva Pope, a licensed practical nurse, "and most of them have hypothermia. Their body temperature's about 95 degrees. We give them blankets, we give them tea. And a place to stay. They don't have anyplace else."

She points to a toothless fellow sitting nearby, his long strands of matted hair sticking out from under a woolen cap.

She says the guy's twin brother died a year ago from exposure. This fellow was a step away. Both of them, alcoholics.

"We gave him a bath," Pope says proudly. "He hadn't had one for a long, long time."

For Bea Gaddy, house mother for the area's homeless, this is one in a series of projects.

Look around this shelter and notice more women than men. The men who sleep here are working at any of six abandoned homes Gaddy's been able to get, trying to make them livable.

"Try to let people know," says Gaddy, "this is not a catering service we're running. They can stay here, but they've got to do something."

She points to a chart on a wall, indicating which men are working at which locations.

Other signs indicate added house rules: evening curfew hours, body searches for all people entering the building.

Gaddy runs a pretty tight ship.

This warehouse is nice, but only for a while.

The current ice age will pass, but people have to change their lives so they never need a refuge from the streets.

Bea Gaddy looks at all these people, and it's nice to have them under one roof, but where will they go from here?

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