Closing of two shelters cuts homeless' options Balto. Co. facilities are shut until Nov.

April 16, 1997|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Scores of homeless people who depended on Baltimore County's two temporary winter shelters are looking for new places to sleep today -- the shelters closed for the season at 7 a.m.

In the past two years, the 80-bed shelters in Rosedale and Catonsville increasingly have become seasonal lodging of last resort for those unable to get one of the county's 230 semipermanent homeless shelter beds.

Now, with that safety valve closed until November, people such as Kelsey Teeter, a 35-year-old former security guard who says he has spent every night at the Rosedale shelter since his hospital discharge six weeks ago, might have nowhere to go.

"Just staying alive is the big concept right now," Teeter said Monday as he waited for a casserole dinner at the shelter with several dozen men and a few women. If left with no alternative, he'll likely spend his nights in an old car, he said.

Two new county programs, costing a combined $1.6 million, might help. They will send teams of workers to work with the most reclusive homeless and provide money for drug and alcohol treatment.

"You are not going to get every homeless person off the streets," said Terri M. Kingeter, the county's homeless service coordinator. "They are human beings. Why not reach those people we can reach?"

Although the total number of homeless in the county is uncertain, a 1995 survey found nearly 600 people living on the streets.

The county spends nearly $400,000 annually on shelter services, including the two $80,000-a-year cold weather shelters and nine other shelters.

The cold weather shelters, run by the private, nonprofit Community Assistance Network (CAN) on a contract from the county, aren't designed for semipermanent residence, but for the occasional hot meal and place to sleep.

But no one is turned away from the two 7 p.m-to-7 a.m. winter shelters if he or she is sober and well-behaved. This February, attendance at both winter shelters increased nearly 40 percent over the same month in 1996, despite this year's milder winter weather.

"They're outgrowing the space allotted to them," said Kingeter, noting that this year the shelters were open nightly between mid-November and mid-April, while in the past a decision was made daily about whether to open based on the weather.

Robert Gajdys, executive director of CAN, also worries that the shelters may be outgrowing the buildings in which they're located. In Catonsville, the increasing clientele at the shelter has alarmed residents of the nearby residential communities.

Gajdys also noted that a similar cold weather shelter for men closed in Towson two winters ago to make way for construction of the Towson roundabout.

"I think we have a moral and ethical obligation to help these people. Forty percent of these people are the working poor," Gajdys said. With counseling and help, they could be self-supporting again, he said.

Neither of the winter shelters offers much in the way of luxury.

The Catonsville shelter, at the Benjamin Banneker center at Wesley and Main avenues, has a shower but no kitchen and only one large room for sleeping. The eastern shelter, at the county's Eastern Family Resource Center, across from Franklin Square Hospital Center, has separate rooms for men and women and a kitchen but no shower.

At the eastern shelter Monday night, heat billowed from the kitchen's oven, which was heating dinners prepared by Baltimore County Coalition for the Homeless. A small television blared a "Seinfeld" rerun as clients arrived for the night.

The activity unfolded under the sharp but friendly eyes of shelter manager John "Pancho" Johnson. He and Kingeter gave clients small brown duffel bags sewn by students at Pine Grove Middle School in Carney. The bags were filled with toiletries and other personal essentials.

Most of those at the shelter said they are trying to change the circumstances of their lives.

Terry, a 36-year-old Essex construction worker who came to the shelter after losing a job and who asked that his last name not be used, is working again and has enough saved to rent a place. But he spent most of the winter sleeping at the shelter.

Teeter said county police took him to a hospital after a hand injury; the loss of his job and a broken relationship with a woman led him to consider suicide.

Others at the shelter included a mother and her 22-year-old daughter; a 59-year-old woman who said she is disabled and out of touch with her three grown children; a 42-year-old marble mason whose eyes were damaged in a pre-Christmas car accident; and several people who have substance abuse problems.

A few said they panhandle for cash or do odd jobs. Others look for work, staying briefly with friends or family members and spending their days riding buses from one homeless aid station to another.

All will have to find alternatives to the shelter -- and some of those alternatives might be extreme.

Michael Gomeringer, a bearded 47-year-old Kenwood High dropout, Army veteran and alcoholic, said he has shoplifted in the past to get money and food, and also to get into jail for `D shelter.

Now, he plans to return to a spot under a nearby railroad bridge where he has "camped out" before. "I catch rabbits and squirrels" to eat, he said. He has a tiny shelter there built from scraps. "It's my fault," he said, sheepishly.

Pub Date: 4/16/97

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