Lesson seen in death of homeless man found at City Hall

October 25, 1994|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer

The death of John Thomas Reid, whose body was found Sunday sprawled on the steps of the City Hall portico, should serve as a warning to city officials, advocates for the homeless said yesterday.

"It really does highlight the problem. There needs to be more done," said Marvin Hardley, the director of Christopher Place, an East Baltimore shelter that the 44-year-old Mr. Reid frequented.

Several homeless people interviewed outside City Hall yesterday remained skeptical that Mr. Reid's death will help the more than 2,000 people thought to be living on Baltimore's streets. They said city laws -- such as panhandling restrictions struck down by a federal judge this year -- only exacerbate their plight.

"The message is that they want to move the rich people in and the poor people out," said Truxon Sykes, 51, a former homeless man who heads an advocacy group called the Baltimore Homeless Union.

Mr. Reid's death -- on City Hall steps overlooking a plaza that attracts many of the homeless -- shows that "no one cares," Mr. Sykes said. "They system induces people to be homeless and makes them criminals for being that way."

A security guard found Mr. Reid's body about 12:20 p.m. near the second-level landing of what was once the grand entrance to the four-story building built in 1875.

Police said the body was near one of six pillars under an overhang frequented by homeless people seeking shelter from the elements, such as Sunday's rainstorm. An uneaten sandwich and a paper cup full of coffee were found near his body.

In Mr. Reid's pockets, police found personal papers, identification cards and crumpled bills and change totaling $7.16.

The state medical examiner's office performed an autopsy yesterday, but officials said a cause of death could not be determined until laboratory tests were completed.

A spokesman for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who is traveling with the Baltimore Sympathy Orchestra in Seoul, South Korea, declined to comment.

City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who plans to run against Mr. Schmoke in the 1995 election, said she tried last year to get the city to take over the former Fire Department headquarters on Lexington Street as a homeless shelter. That move was rebuffed by the Board of Estimates, she said.

"We should have had a homeless shelter across the square," she said, referring to the plaza in front of City Hall. She said that area is attractive because the 24-hour security helps the homeless feel safe. "This is where it should go, in the shadow of city government."

Joanne Selinske, director of the Mayor's Office of Homeless Services, said there are an estimated 2,000 to 2,400 homeless people in Baltimore. Last year, 23,000 people sought refuge in shelters, she said.

"The purpose of the program is to ensure that no one dies on the streets," she said. "Any death is a serious matter."

Advocates say that on average, 30 to 40 homeless people die on Baltimore streets each year.

The city operates several outreach programs, and, starting Nov. 1, a Mass Transit Administration bus will make several stops throughout the city to take homeless people to shelters. One stop is at the corner of Holiday and Baltimore streets, a block from City Hall.

First District City Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., whose district includes the area around City Hall, agreed that stronger programs are needed for the homeless. He blamed the state and federal governments for the sparse funding.

Gayle Economos, a spokeswoman for Catholic Charities of Baltimore, said she hopes some good can come of Mr. Reid's death.

"I hope this will call more attention to the plight of the homeless," she said. "A lot of people need help. That's something we all can agree on."

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