Fallon garage provides a shelter of last resort

January 30, 1994|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer

Robert Dennis has been on the streets for the past six months, learning everything you need to know about being homeless in Baltimore.

He found out how to apply for disability.

He found out which soup kitchens serve breakfast, lunch and dinner.

And he found the refuge chosen by those who shun the city's homeless shelters -- the parking garage under the George H. Fallon federal office building.

"I prefer this to the shelters," he said with a grin, settling in last Wednesday evening. "It's closer to all the places you have to go during the day."

Above, in the daylight hours, federal bureaucrats come and go, talking about their work for the Internal Revenue Service, General Services Administration and other agencies.

At night, the garage belongs to the city's homeless.

Year-round, from midnight to 6 a.m., as many as 50 homeless men and women sleep in the garage, beneath the fans that regulate the federal building's temperature.

In the winter, those fans blow hot air until the garage is "house warm," as one regular calls it. In the summer, the building's air-conditioning system keeps it cool. Perhaps most important, the garage is safe -- a clean, well-lighted place where security guards keep a watchful eye.

Amid winter's chill, hot meals and beverages are ferried in by a loosely organized network of volunteers.

And each morning, as workers start filing back into the building, guards wake the slumbering guests.

The garage is a de facto shelter, as large as some of the official ones, but without the same rules and regulations. Its very existence points to the inadequacy of Baltimore's homeless services, say critics of the city's "winter plan." City officials counter that some people will not go to shelters under any circumstances.

Similar de facto shelters exist throughout the city. Doorways along Light Street. Steam grates. Hidden spots beneath the Jones Falls Expressway. Some swear by the Metro construction site along President Street, where the ground seems to stay warmer.

But no spot draws as many regulars as the Fallon building.

Just a few feet from Lombard Street, between Charles Street and Hopkins Place, it lies beyond the city's collective peripheral vision. But for those who are homeless, it is an almost legendary place, an oasis of warmth in a cold city.

A dark chapter was added to that legend this month, when Barney Bostick was found dead in the garage. Some people left, frightened by his death. Some people found shelter through the Homeless Union.

But, by last week, the regulars were back in full force, sleeping on bedrolls made from cardboard boxes, sleeping bags and old clothes.

"If you don't get to a shelter by 6 p.m., you're out of it," explained Mr. Dennis, an affable man who said he ended up on the streets after losing his job. "And you may be 20 blocks away, and too cold to walk that far. So you come here."

Those who help the homeless have found their way here, too. Almost every night, volunteers come with food, blankets and clothes.

A government spokesman was unavailable for comment last week, but the management at the Fallon building knows about the de facto shelter and, apparently, condones it.

Security guards, for example, are given instructions on the protocol. Tony Brown, new on the job this month, got a bulletin detailing the routine. Doors open at midnight, when the building closes and the traffic stops. The slumbering guests must be awakened before 6 a.m., when the cars start rolling in again.

No one told Mr. Brown he had to befriend the men there, but he did, as have other security guards. He had never actually spoken homeless people before working there.

"I used to think they were mean and dirty," he said. "I've come to see they're real nice people. Most of them are veterans. Some of them are the most considerate men I've ever met in my life. They're just having some bad luck."

Gerald, one of the regulars, a former Marine who lost his job with General Motors, gestured at the sleeping men. Sure, some have drinking and drug problems, he said. But they also had jobs once. No one here identifies himself as an alcoholic or an addict. It's, "I'm an ex-roofer" or "I'm a mechanic by trade."

"Look at these guys," said Gerald, who won't reveal his last name. "I promise you, if you wanted to make a car, or build a house, you could do it with the men here."

Night life at building

Gray and rectangular, the George H. Fallon building has been compared to an IBM card with the holes punched out. People might go there to pick up tax forms, or park there for an Orioles game or an event at the Arena. A few may even know its namesake, a Maryland congressman first elected in 1944.

But to find its night life, it helps to have a guide. Last Wednesday night, with temperatures in the 20s and falling rapidly, a group of young volunteers called HUSH -- Helping the Unsheltered Homeless -- initiated some newcomers into their weekly pilgrimage.

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