A Test Of Compassion 1996

January 07, 1996|By Will Englund

Homelessness is so familiar by now, so stale, so tiresome, that the particulars barely register anymore. There are probably about 2,500 homeless people in Baltimore as 1996 begins, and even if they are not the same 2,500 people of 10 or five or two years ago, what's the difference?

Dirty, forlorn, unlucky, shiftless, victimized, addicted - the usual litany of adjectives applies. Or so many people think.

Violet Anderson doesn't see it that way. Although there's plenty of truth in the usual litany, for her there's still always a face, a quirk, a slightly different gradation and a story to go with every person who makes his way to the Brown's Memorial Baptist Church shelter at 3215 W. Belvedere Ave.

Ms. Anderson started the shelter 10 years ago, and, by her own account, still is the director, secretary, fund-raiser - and cook when there's no one else.

From night to night, you never know for sure who will show up, but there are always 60 of them. Every night they come down the gloomy steps to the basement shelter, a dingy-tile, bare-bulb and metal-grate sort of place where 60 Army cots line the walls, a television works fitfully, the rules are posted prominently, and a hot meal is waiting.

And hers is just one of two dozen shelters around the city. Some are residential centers for men pulling themselves back together, some are for the constantly shifting population of people who just have to find a place from night to night, and a new one will soon be joining them for men who are actively drunk or high.

The kinds of people Ms. Anderson sees have changed dramatically over the decade. In 1985, a large number of the homeless were mentally unstable men who had been de-institutionalized. Today, more and more [See Homeless, 6e] men (and women and children) have been cast out on the street because the loss of a job overwhelmed them.

Given enough time, though, emotional problems almost inevitably set in, she says. A life on the streets and in the shelters will do that.

Edward Lee had a job - has had several jobs.

His last one was with a liquor distributor, loading trucks. But at 35 he has, he says, two herniated discs in his back. He has applied for disability, he says, and he has appointments to see doctors later this winter.

In the meantime, what's there to do but take advantage of the hospitality of Brown's Memorial Baptist Church?

(Mr. Lee, and others mentioned here, were interviewed for an article on a charity called Boots for Baltimore that recently appeared in The Sun - but the conversations inevitably strayed from the topic of footwear.)

If he could get his back taken care of, he could, like others at the shelter, do day work on construction sites, or at Pimlico Race Course across the street, until he got his life together again and could move out.

Rail-thin, he talks excitedly. So pleased to find someone other than the taciturn men who are sitting around him, he keeps talking.

About a year ago, he was at Christopher's Place, a shelter in East Baltimore. He had a little work and moved in with his brother-in-law but quit because of his back.

"I didn't have any money, you know?" Mr. Lee says. "I didn't want to put that burden on my brother-in-law. You know, sometimes people get discouraged, arguments start, one thing leads to another."

The bright smile on his face fades. His eyes turn away.

Yet recovery can happen. A man can find balance.

Way across town, at South Baltimore Station in an old firehouse at 140 W. West St., Purnell Jones has been accepted into a six-month residential program. It comes after two years on the streets, and two months since he used heroin, he says.

Once, he worked for the parks department, and for a year he had a state job at Camden Yards. In 1993, at 38, his heroin and cocaine addiction got the better of him, he says.

He learned how to live on buses and the Metro, and at soup kitchens. He went from one friend's house to another. "They call it pillar to post," he says. "The addiction was my contribution to the imbalance in my life."

What does it take to change course?

"You give up," Mr. Jones says. "You say, 'I've had enough of this.' You have to say, 'I'm beat.' And my decision was to help myself."

Now, he says, he's in charge. His mustache is neatly clipped, his clothes carefully pressed. He radiates goodwill. He's required to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting every day; he attends three. He has to do five hours a month of volunteer work in the community; he's done more than that in two weeks.

"It's like giving back what some people have been giving me," he says. He plans to re-enroll in Sojourner Douglass College when ++ he leaves South Baltimore Station.

"Now I have a strong future in front of me," he says.

But if a person were focused or angelic he wouldn't have landed on the streets in the first place. Strong futures are not easy to come by.

Leo Rossman - vigorous, a self-starter, a natural salesman - had a wife, a home and a business in Pikesville, until his 22-year addiction to Quaaludes proved too much, and he threw it all away. That was two years ago, when he was 37.

He bounced through a few shelters, and finally wound up at South Baltimore Station. He went through the six-month program, and moved into a house he shares with a "classmate" in Owings Mills.

Two weeks ago, he returned to South Baltimore.

"Due to circumstances," he says, "I returned for a refresher course. When things get complicated, you can go back." A long sigh. "And things got complicated."

9+

Will Englund is a reporter for The Sun

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