Thieves, rats, hostility make Bea Gaddy's selfless work even harder

November 24, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

Bea Gaddy is standing in the middle of her cramped emergency food shelter on North Collington Avenue, directing her troops like Napoleon. Volunteers squeeze past carrying big boxes and tubs of food. The telephone rings incessantly. Way off in the back, a group of women is preparing turkey sandwiches.

This was yesterday, on a morning turned bitterly cold. I had gone to Mrs. Gaddy's headquarters to check on the preparations for today's annual Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless.

Mrs. Gaddy, 61, is a tiny woman dressed in an ankle-length calico dress and sensible shoes. But there is nothing frail about her. She stands with her shoulders squared and her feet firmly planted, just so, waving her arms as she speaks. And she has fiery eyes and a stubborn cast to her jaw. She's been feeding the poor and housing the homeless since 1981.

"Make a note," Mrs. Gaddy is saying to a volunteer. "I need to get a side of beef. Somebody made off with the one we had." The volunteer writes this down. "Oh, and pots and pans. We need to get some of those, too. Somebody else ran off with our pots and pans."

She looks over at me and laughs.

"Can you imagine that? Running off with all our pots and pans? People!"

"You sound as though thievery is a big problem," I say.

"Every day," Mrs. Gaddy answers emphatically. "Every day. They've done everything but kill me here."

"Your clients?"

"I don't know who it is. But we've got to make it so people feel less desperate. Convince them they don't have to steal from us. That we're here to help them."

She gestures toward a security guard who is standing outside in a heavy jacket, shivering against the cold. "That poor thing isn't going to stop anyone. I've told her if she sees anyone running off with food to let them go. We're not going to call the police on anyone stealing food."

Suddenly, there is a scream and a crash from the rear kitchen where the women were making sandwiches. Mrs. Gaddy's eyes get big. She puts a hand to her mouth. "Oh Lord," she says softly, as if to herself, "another rat."

I feel my hackles rise and I nervously eye the narrow corridor leading to the kitchen. But after a while, the women return to work and Mrs. Gaddy heaves an enormous sigh. "This whole place is bad," she says. "We've got to get another place."

Mrs. Gaddy's efforts to feed the poor have earned her national attention. For example, a network news crew was expected to follow her around today.

But caring for the needy has always been a thankless task -- and these days and times are no exception. In addition to rats and thieves, Mrs. Gaddy says she's had to battle politicians and bureaucrats and a general public indifference to her work. Earlier this year, the Internal Revenue Service threatened to take away her tax-exempt status because of poor bookkeeping. The negative publicity hurt this year's donations; it also seemed to anger some of the people she is trying to help.

"Lord," she says, "you wouldn't believe the death threats and nasty language. Women saying I'm only in it for myself."

Meanwhile, the need seems to keep growing.

"Conditions are 10 times worse than last year," Mrs. Gaddy says somberly. "There are more people looking for food, more people with no place to stay, more misery all the way around. Times are just real, real hard."

Mrs. Gaddy sounds tired at times and frustrated. She says she would love to return to college to earn a master's degree and Ph.D. in social work -- but she cannot find the time. She talks about expanding her emergency housing shelter, but complains that she cannot find enough public support. She says that a lot of her efforts are hampered by bureaucratic in-fighting and the jealousy of her peers.

"Why can't folks just stop," she exclaims. "Can't they see there's enough hurt out there for everybody? We ought to be working together so that people can start to heal."

Tired or not, though, she plans to keep fighting. Some people -- myself included -- call her the Mother Theresa of Baltimore. It is not because she is on national television. It is because of what she has to put up with when the cameras go away.

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