City homeless cut across lines Educated, employed noted in group's study

January 14, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

The homeless in Baltimore include the college- and high school-educated, the newly poor and the employed, according to information released yesterday by Action for the Homeless.

"The findings show new facts confirm some recent trends and should also serve to dispel common myths about people who are homeless," the organization said.

The surprising portrait of the poor came from in-depth interviews late last summer and fall with 48 people living in shelters. They were among 3,000 homeless estimated by the nonprofit agency to live in Baltimore at any one time.

The sampling showed:

Almost 30 percent had some college, and another 35 percent had graduated from high school or had a GED.

42 percent had never been homeless previously.

50 percent said they had slept on the street, in an abandoned building or in a car in the past.

17 percent had full- or part-time jobs, and 55 percent had been employed in the last year.

25 percent said disabilities kept them from working.

42 percent had children with them. The average number per family was two, their average age was 6, and almost half were school age.

Statewide, more than 40,000 shelter admissions for men, women and children were tallied. The number would have been higher, but people were turned away on 33,772 occasions for lack of space.

No cheerier was the somber annual report on the state's emergency food situation: 10.6 percent more individuals and families -- 117,547 people -- needed food from pantries and soup kitchens last October than in October 1996.

The Maryland Food Committee said having a job didn't necessarily mean having enough food.

The report quoted conditions in 172 emergency food outlets. A ** third of the people getting free food had jobs. Almost half the recipients had children.

The increases have been about 20 percent each of the past few years, but the jump was lower last year, partly because some pantries ran out of food. Seventy percent said they needed more groceries. And 56 percent said they had more customers because food stamps were reduced.

"You've heard about the good economy," said Ralph E. Moore, the food committee's chief operating officer. "America and Maryland are wearing the emperor's clothes. The emperor has no clothes. He has no house. He has no food. The good life is for the upper echelons."

Both reports were revealed at a news conference staged amid the noise of more than 1,000 poor people talking as they lined up to get free medical help and other services at the annual Opportunity Fair at the Convention Center.

The two groups organized what they called the "good news" of 60 agencies joining for the fair.

"The other news is bad, and it's getting worse," activist Robert V. Hess said of declining conditions for the homeless and hungry. "These findings scare us." Hess is president and chief executive officer of Action for the Homeless and the Maryland Food Committee.

He said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Baltimore and Baltimore County, plans to introduce a $10 million emergency food bill in the General Assembly.

The homeless group and food committee also will push for an increase from $500,000 to $2 million in state funding for Service ,, Linked Housing, a program for the poor.

Hess drew cheers from several dozen bystanders when he said: "The government has a responsibility, and it's time for them to show up. If we can put $500 million into two sports stadiums, we can find $12 million for the poor."

The sample of 48 homeless people was divided equally between men and women, with a mean age of 36. The ethnic breakdown was 75 percent African-American, 17 percent white, and others. Veterans made up 19 percent.

The most common reasons given for being homeless were substance abuse, family problems, loss of a job or inability to find a job and homes damaged by water or fire. "Health issues among those interviewed were significant," the report said.

For example, 46 percent said they had a chronic physical health problem; 40 percent reported having a mental illness; 23 percent admitted liquor or drug abuse, and another 42 percent said they once abused substances. They said barriers to addiction

treatment were lack of health insurance, medical aid and self-motivation, and having to care for children.

Ann Ciekot, deputy director of Action for the Homeless, said the group would urge the legislature to increase spending for addiction treatment and "make health care accessible to all Marylanders."

Ciekot said the group also wants the state to maintain funding for the homeless and to create a Maryland minimum wage of $7.70 an hour. That compares with the federal minimum of $5.15.

The free services provided yesterday during the Opportunity Fair came in for praise.

Jack Gordon, who said he had slept in city shelters, gestured toward the booths, and said: "This is good. But do it more often."

Portrait of the homeless

A sample of 48 Baltimore homeless people in shelters revealed surprising charateristics;

More than two-thirds had a high school diploma or at least some college education.

Nearly half said they were homeless for the first time in their lives.

Nearly half were parents and were accompanied by their children.

About one-fourth admitted having a substance abuse problem.

SOURCE: Action for the Homeless

Pub Date: 1/14/98

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