Manna House saves lost minds and bodies

This Just In...

April 15, 1996|By DAN RODRICKS

Every year, as the anniversary of her mother's death approaches, something happens. She goes off -- somewhere, anywhere, and sometimes to Baltimore.

This time, she ended up lost, a Jane Doe alive, dazed, helpless and afraid. "I want to be safe" were the only words anyone could understand her to say, and she said them repeatedly. "I want to be safe."

She had driven south from New Jersey, left her car out on the interstate near Baltimore and, through circumstances not completely known, ended up sitting on the sidewalk at Greenmount and North. A man in that neighborhood took her to one of the few places that offers hospitality to such strangers -- Manna House, the rowhouse soup kitchen on 25th Street that operates on prayers and promises.

The workers at Manna House noticed a long, dark bruise along the woman's jaw line.

Somewhere between the interstate and Greenmount Avenue, something terrible had happened to her. And Esther Reaves, who runs Manna House, believes the bruise on the woman's face might not have been the worst of it.

She was young -- 23 years old, it turned out -- with the kind of hairstyle that costs serious money, fine clothes and antique jewelry. She carried a travel bag. "Her appearance made her seem out of context at Manna House," says Reaves. "She wore a beautiful wool sweater. She had no coat."

The young woman did not know her own name. She did not know where she had come from. She was completely disoriented and could say little about herself, except for this: "I want to be safe."

A lot of men and women come through the glass doors of the Manna House soup kitchen between 8: 30 and 10 each weekday morning -- more than 100 at times, and more than that at the end of each month, when benefits run out. Some of the men have minimum-wage jobs, and take the free meal on their way to work. Many of the regulars are disabled. A lot of them have drug and alcohol addictions. Some suffer from profound mental illness, and it's pretty clear the young woman with the fine clothes and travel bag was one of those.

"I've seen a lot come through these doors," says Lillian Lowensen, who supervises the soup kitchen. "I don't know if people realize it, but there are a lot of mentally ill people out here, on the streets. They're poor, they don't get the help they need."

Lowensen knows that well. Just last week, a man named Michael came through the glass doors and clutched her arms so tightly it hurt. For 45 minutes he sat and clung to her, and he wept and uttered suicidal thoughts.

"When I was hungry you fed me," Michael told Lowensen. "Now, help me. Oh, God, please help me."

After a few minutes, Lowensen could stand no longer in Michael's clutch, so she sat beside him.

"Michael, you're in the right place," she told him.

Joyce Brumfield, the Manna House mental health coordinator, called 911. Soon, the police came; they spoke to Michael, asked him if he wanted to go to a hospital. Michael said he'd get himself there. He broke his clutch of Lillian Lowensen's arms and walked outside and into the rain. In a few minutes, he was face down on 25th Street. He had thrown himself into (or onto, depending on which version of the story you hear) an oncoming Jeep Cherokee. He went to a hospital by ambulance. The police say he was not seriously injured. Michael hasn't been seen at Manna House since.

Lowensen and Reaves feel the police could have done more to prevent Michael from hurting himself. They think the officers should have taken the suicide talk more seriously.

"You know, we get hard, too, sometimes," Lillian Lowensen says after seven years in the Manna House soup kitchen. "We see a lot up here, too."

And yet, the doors stay open. Places like Manna House serve the rock-bottom poor, many of whom carry heavy baggage.

On any given day, some lost soul walks in -- because there's nowhere else to go.

"I want to be safe," the young woman from New Jersey said again as an officer from the Northern District arrived. He opened her travel bag and went through it.

He found an identification. He made some calls. He learned the young woman had been reported missing two days earlier by her father in New Jersey. One thing led to another, and soon the young woman's aunt from Baltimore County was sitting by her side in Manna House. She sat there all day with her.

This aunt was the sister of the young woman's mother, who had died when her daughter was a child. The mother had been buried in Green Mount Cemetery. "That's where this young woman had been trying to get to," Reaves says. "Her maternal grandmother is buried in Green Mount, too. That antique jewelry she was wearing had been her grandmother's."

The young woman's father arrived in a Mercedes several hours later and took her home.

The aunt, grateful for Manna House, sent a contribution and a note: "Life is a struggle for survival and when someone is lost, either in mind or body, and a stranger rescues them from certain tragedy no amount of money or thanks can touch the deep gratitude that is felt. You and the man that brought [my niece] to Manna House are the saviors of the lost. I will try very hard to help [my niece]. You have given me the chance."

Pub Date: 4/15/96

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