Each night family seeks shelter

CHILDREN OF THE STREETS

October 29, 1994|By Robert Hilson Jr. and Clara Germani | Robert Hilson Jr. and Clara Germani,Sun Staff Writers

Seven-year-old Devona Jones shoved her hands into her windbreaker and turned the collar up against the wind. Her brother, Jimmy, 5, wearing a well-worn sweat jacket, closely followed his sister.

The temperature had dipped into the 40s the night before, and a stiff breeze rattled in the alley behind Franklin Street.

The siblings walked several paces behind their mother who carried their 18-month-old sister toward Our Daily Bread. The late-morning meal at the downtown soup kitchen on Wednesday was their first and perhaps only meal of the day, and they were hungry.

They were usually hungry.

The previous night had been a good night for Viola Jones and her three children. They had slept on the floor of a barren Reservoir Hill apartment and used cushions from a sofa as their bed.

They had not been so fortunate earlier in the week. They walked the downtown streets from early evening until nearly midnight before going to the emergency room at the Veterans Administration hospital to find solace on the hard plastic chairs.

"You like to stay inside every night, but sometimes you just can't," Ms. Jones said. "You try, but you never know."

At Our Daily Bread, Ms. Jones steered her children into the foyer and waited with about 50 other homeless men and women to be seated and served. Although they were standing, the respite from walking was welcome. Ms. Jones leaned against the wall and put her daughter down and the diaper bag on the floor. "You stay right here and don't get lost," she told her older children. "I don't want to have to be looking for you."

She wouldn't have to worry about the youngsters; they were tired and in no mood to wander.

Within 45 minutes, Ms. Jones and her children were back on the streets walking -- nowhere special, just walking to pass time; walking to have something to do; walking so as not to think about where they would sleep that night.

Ms. Jones and her children are among the 600,000 people nationally who are homeless on any given night, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"Families with children make up a fifth of the homeless population," said Jack Flynn, the HUD spokesman, "and more than 80 percent of those are headed by a single mother."

In Maryland, officials say, there were 6,000 children without homes at some point during fiscal 1993.

Harriet Goldman, who heads the homeless services program of the state Department of Human Resources, said the state spends more than $16 million a year to care for the homeless.

HUD estimates that 7 million different people were homeless at some point during the 1980s, Mr. Flynn said. And more than half of those who receive emergency food are children, according to the Maryland Food Committee.

Since coming to Baltimore from Richmond, Va., in search of her brother last November, Ms. Jones, 28, and her children have led a nomadic existence. They have lived with relatives, street acquaintances and friends who were at one time homeless and in apartments owned by "no-good" landlords.

Lately, they have slept in hospital emergency rooms and "wherever we wind up," Ms. Jones said. "It's sometimes where we are at at a certain time, but I try to start thinking about it early so as not to be without nowhere to go," Ms. Jones said.

In addition to nights at the VA hospital emergency room, Ms. Jones and her children have stayed several times with a friend in a West Baltimore apartment with no furniture, blankets or pillows.

However, both those options are better than the benches at the Lexington Market where they stayed at various times in the summer.

"If it was just me, I wouldn't mind staying [on the streets]. But I want to look out for the kids," said Ms. Jones, a slight woman with an easy, tired smile. In the brisk morning air, she wears a lightweight, purple athletic suit and a tattered black Chicago White Sox baseball cap pulled over her eyes.

"I don't want them [her children] out on the streets much. We out there all day so I don't want them to be out there at night, too."

Jimmy, her son, is more straightforward.

"I want to be able play with some toys and not have go out each morning," he said. "I want that to happen."

Ms. Jones has been to several hospital emergency rooms in or near downtown during the past year seeking shelter. But most only let them rest for a few hours, then request that they leave.

"But at VA, if you just go in and sit down and don't do anything, they'll let you stay most of the time," Ms. Jones said. "But you always know you'll be back out on the streets by the morning."

At women's shelters, Ms. Jones feels uneasy because she said many of the homeless women eye her and her possessions too closely.

"That's the last place I want to go anymore," she said. "Those places are strange."

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