Did compassion fatigue do us in?

September 29, 1994|By Esther Reaves

THE WOMAN and her 18-month-old baby and her near grown son came to our emergency shelter for the homeless at Brown's Memorial Baptist Church, in the Pimlico area, at Christmastime last year. A sudden economic reversal had left them without a home.

After a brief stay at Brown's and later a transitional shelter, the family got back on its feet and moved to Baltimore County.

I consider that family one of thousands of success stories I've witnessed as executive director of the Midtown Churches Community Association, which has housed thousands of homeless people over the past seven years.

And it's because of such successes that I deeply regret that the association recently was forced to get out of the business of housing the homeless because of a lack of funds.

Over the past six months, our usual fund-raising efforts -- that included letters to individuals and institutions that had given before and appeals to foundations -- have resulted in few contributions.

How to explain the sudden dearth of money? We have a track record; we've been operating shelters since 1987. What to blame it on? Compassion fatigue?

One key problem is that many people see the homeless problem as an intractable issue that isn't getting better and they reason JTC that giving money to it won't improve the problem. We had difficulty convincing the public that we have witnessed hundreds and hundreds of success stories. Many people see the long lines at soup kitchens and shelters and simply think of the homeless as lazy and unwilling to work.

During the past winter's bitter cold weather that put a sheet of ice over the city for weeks, we had homeless men -- many without gloves or boots -- go out with a firm that hires day laborers and shovel snow all day for minimum wage or less. Those are not lazy people.

Also, in our experience, people generally are homeless only briefly. I doubt if anyone we sheltered in 1987 is homeless today, unless they're alcohol or drug abusers; most of them don't survive on the streets very long.

While the homeless problem won't go away until society attacks the economic problems that cause homelessness -- such as creating more jobs that permit heads of households to earn decent wages and benefits -- we as a society must help the people who fall through the cracks.

It was that philosophy that got Midtown into the business of helping the homeless. We were the pioneers of church shelters in Baltimore. In February 1987, we had been operating the MANNA House soup kitchen for 14 years (it is still in operation) and were acutely aware of the homeless and the dearth of shelter beds in the city. Then there were an estimated 2,400 homeless people and 668 emergency beds available.

One bitter cold night we had 17 men at the soup kitchen who had no shelter from the wind or the snow on the ground. The late Dr. Bryce Shoemaker was pastor of St. Mark's Lutheran Church, 1900 St. Paul St., and president of the Midtown association at the time. When told about the men, he replied: "Use the social hall." That's how St. Mark's became a homeless shelter. Using available space in the churches seemed appropriate, after all, "Sanctuary is the essence of love."

After a blitz of media attention, people responded with food, clothing, money and the contribution of their time to the cause. We remained open for 11 days and provided 160 individuals with shelter. The last night, the guests in the shelter gave us a card, signed by everyone, thanking us for our hospitality.

Within a year's time we were providing shelter to 165 people in three churches in the city. St. Mark's, St. Ann's Roman Catholic Church on Greenmount Avenue and Brown's. St. Mark's and St. Ann's were winter-only shelters; the space was not available in the summer.

Initially, almost our entire budget came from either state or city government. In-kind donations and volunteers helped make the program possible and also pleasant for our guests.

In time the homeless problem grew, but government funding shrank for us as more shelters opened, causing the government funding pie to be divided up further. By 1992 there were 1,000 emergency beds in the city.

With a funding shortage in December 1992, we announced that we were closing the shelters. Media attention sparked the private sector -- individuals and foundations -- to give. We received enough money to keep the shelters open for the rest of the winter. The funds covered our costs of roughly $12 per homeless person per day.

By the 1992-93 winter season, contributions from the private sector dropped. The decrease in funding made us realize that we could not open the winter shelters at St. Mark's and St. Ann's in November 1993. We continued with Brown's, providing shelter to 55 or 60 persons each day throughout the year.

But there still weren't enough beds. In Baltimore City in 1993 a homeless person was turned away from a shelter due to the lack of bed space more than 21,000 times.

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