Homelessness jolts the suburbs Spreading problem: Death of Laurel 'bridge man' casts light on social woes beyond the city.

July 17, 1996

THE GUTTER is not the exclusive domain of big cities. Mention the homeless and an image flashes to mind of drunks sleeping on downtown steam grates.

But panhandlers with "Will Work for Food" signs have become an increasing presence at intersections outside Baltimore. One county community was recently jolted by the harsh reality of suburban homelessness when a man died after being found on a Laurel street.

Indeed, Baltimore continues to shoulder the area's heaviest burden of poverty, but the July 6 death of Arliss "Butch" Golden drove home the fact that suburbs cannot escape these problems. Mr. Golden was among a score of men who congregate near bars in Laurel and sleep under a U.S. 1 bridge zTC at the Howard-Prince George's border. Alcohol proved his undoing.

Officials from the state, Howard County and suburban Laurel are now trying to solve a problem that has bedeviled big cities -- and their budgets -- the last two decades. Two approaches have emerged to Laurel's woe.

The first is to erect a fence to prevent homeless men from using the bridge for a campground. But this plan, sought by the State Highway Administration, would not solve the problem; it would drive it down the road.

The other solution, proposed by social activists, is to build a "wet shelter" that would cater to alcoholics living on the streets. It is humanitarian and a start, but not the penicillin to cure the disease of homelessness.

Cities have known for years what the suburbs are coming to realize -- deinstitutionalization, addictions, fear of government by some homeless people and low wages for unskilled labor make this problem hard to fix. But the occasional story of a vagrant turning around his life serves as a necessary reminder that people, unlike garbage, aren't to be discarded.

Consider Jackie Wallace, a former Baltimore Colts defensive back. Mr. Wallace went from playing in two Super Bowls to an alcoholic binge that caused him to hock his two treasured championship rings and, like Mr. Golden, sleep beneath a bridge. Now back on his feet, with a wife and a home in Northeast Baltimore, he declares, "I am a miracle."

Unfortunately, tough times will bring more Butch Goldens to city and suburb. But it's important to remember the Jackie Wallaces, too.

Pub Date: 7/17/96

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