It may be in the cards HELP FOR THE HOMELESS

February 13, 1994|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Sun Staff Writer

When newcomers land in Baltimore, they typically get glossy brochures playing up the town at its crab-and-baseball best.

When the bus left Charles Shamwell at the Greyhound terminal, the first thing he got was a wallet-size card printed in black and white that detailed homeless services in the area.

Three months later, he believes the "street card" he picked up at an emergency shelter was one of the best introductions to the city he could have received.

"It was a godsend," says Mr. Shamwell, 35, a recovering drug addict. "It helped me find food, work and a place to live."

The street card was his ticket off the streets, he says.

Detractors, though, say these cards do more to ease the conscience of those handing them out than to improve the quality of life for the needy.

D8 Hailed by merchants as a way to curb panhandling and

by homeless advocates as a way to educate, street cards and vouchers for services are becoming an increasingly popular alternative to giving money to the homeless.

But critics say these cards and vouchers are ineffectual among a population that's often mentally ill, illiterate or addicted to drugs or alcohol. They say the cards illustrate the public's growing hostility toward the homeless.

Maria Foscarinis, director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in Washington, says that street cards dehumanize an already demeaning situation.

"The street cards give the impression that help is out there," she says, "[and that] the problem is people are not looking for it. But that's not true. What is true is that even emergency services are grossly oversubscribed."

But Sidney Gardner, director of Christopher Place, a men's shelter in East Baltimore, is a believer. He keeps a stack of cards on his desk and sometimes hands out a dozen a day.

"It's time for tough love," he says. "That's what these street cards are. . . . I see these people day in and day out. I've given them the dollars, the quarters, the dimes. It hasn't helped."

For the last three years, Baltimore has produced cards offering information about shelters, soup kitchens and transportation through the Mayor's Office of Homeless Services. This year alone, some 120,000 will be distributed to homeless service providers, police, schools and hospital emergency rooms.

The cards also are turning up in more stores. As part of a current public education campaign about the homeless, the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore Inc. has placed 55 contribution boxes with stacks of street cards at retailers around the city. By March, they expect to have 200 boxes in place, says Laurie Schwartz, president of the partnership.

"Many people fail to realize that the money they give on the street may actually hurt people," she says. "It could help feed an addiction."

Although figures have not yet been tallied for 1994, $600 was collected in November and December, the first two months of the campaign last year. The money will go toward substance-abuse treatment for the homeless.

But the need for help continues to outpace what's available. In a survey of 26 cities, the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that the demand for food among the homeless increased 13 percent and the demand for shelter rose 10 percent last year.

In Maryland, the number of people served in shelter programs increased more than 25 percent during the last five years. Nearly 50,000 people were served in 1992, the latest figures available, according to the Maryland Department of Resources.

The idea to issue a Baltimore street card came about after an employee of Catholic Charities saw a similar street card in New York. Following the city's lead, Baltimore County began producing a street card through the library system, and several other counties in the state are either considering or have created their own cards.

The cost is minimal. The city spends less than $1,000 annually to print and distribute the cards, according to Joanne Selinske, director of the Mayor's Office of Homeless Services.

Somewhat akin to the street cards are vouchers, which, like food stamps, are redeemable for meals or services at participating stores.

One of the most successful -- and most imitated -- programs is Berkeley Cares, a nonprofit voucher organization founded in 1991. Donations allow the group to underwrite the cost of producing 25-cent vouchers, which are sold to the public at more than 90 stores and agencies throughout the Berkeley, Calif., area. The public then gives vouchers instead of money to those in need. Recipients can redeem the vouchers at any one of 23 participating shops, laundromats or transportation agencies for anything except alcohol or tobacco. Every two weeks, administrators collect the vouchers and write checks to participating businesses.

Berkeley Cares, which has sold more than 250,000 vouchers, has a 70 percent redemption rate. Many other cities have reportedly lower figures.

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