Christmas at the South Baltimore Homeless Shelter means hope, determination, thick warm socks and sturdy, no-nonsense black work boots. Hope and determination are here year-round. The socks and boots, though, have come at exactly the right time.
"The hawk's out there now," says Tazewell Henderson, who's 62 and used dope maybe 30 years.
He's talking about the weather, which has finally turned cold, the wind swooping down West Street like a bird of prey, the snow right behind it. The shelter's in a retired firehouse on the corner of West and Hanover streets, right where South Baltimore turns into light industry and parking lots for the football stadium. It's a transitional haven for drug and alcohol addicts trying to live clean.
"They ain't exactly a showboat," Reginald Poole, 44, says of his new shoes. "But the weather's getting cold enough for me to put them on."
Ordinarily he wears battered white athletic shoes, like most of the 40 residents here. They're not exactly showboats either.
An outfit called Boots for Baltimore provided the work shoes for the South Baltimore shelter and a sister shelter on Light Street where 40 women and children can find emergency shelter nightly.
"We gave out over 1,600 pairs of new, insulated, hard-toe boots to homeless men and women at Baltimore shelters this year," says Sherrill Nash, who along with Suzanne Wills started the Boots for Baltimore program 13 years ago at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer.
They raised about $50,000 this year from parishioners, corporations and other donors. Nash is proud that the program is all-volunteer, has no overhead and all the money raised goes for boots. They've been so successful Sunny's Great Outdoors stores has boots made especially for them each year -- and supplies the socks, too.
While he checks out his boots, Poole says he's been at the South Baltimore shelter nearly four months. He loves the place.
"They provide for you," he says. "They're trying to put me back on the right road. That's why I'm here. I got very unmanageable."
He was messing with drugs, as the saying goes here, cocaine mostly.
"I'm in recovery now," he says.
Theoretically, everyone at the shelter is in recovery, not using drugs. There's an occasional drug test; if you fail, you're out.
And there are failures. Plenty of them. Tim Williams, the shelter's director, calculates its success rate at about 30 percent.
The Christmas boot exchange sometimes underscores this fact. one responds when Williams calls out the name of of a guy who's listed for a pair, size 10. Charles left the shelter, turned up dead. The word from the street is that he got a lump-sum payment from Social Security, spent it on drugs and overdosed.
"That kind of brings a sober feeling, because Charles left us," Williams says. "We'll think about him for a moment, then move on. Like life does."
But tonight, there's a Christmas tree in the "Great Hall" where fire trucks were once stationed. There's Papa John's pizza served by volunteers from the Enterprise Social Investment Corp.
And there are more Boots for Baltimore. The next pair is size 9 1/2 and goes to Jose Cruz.
Cruz, 38, was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in New Jersey and New York. He came to Baltimore about eight years ego.
"I was trying to run away from my problems," he says. "I came down here and created my own problems down here. I created more problems down here actually than I had up there."
His problems, he says, included addiction to heroin and crack cocaine. When he ran out of alternatives, he came to the shelter.
"The pain I couldn't take out there," he says. "And the fact I didn't have anywhere to go. I slammed all the doors, burnt all the bridges. I didn't have no control over what I was doing."
You learn a lot at the shelter, he says.
"You learn to change the way you think, your attitude, your behavior. You also learn that the problems you create, you're responsible for."
Cruz has been in drug rehab programs for about six months now. Before that, he was on the street, he says, "homeless and hopeless."
"I lived right in front of City Hall for three days, over there on the benches."
Ernest Thomas, 44, leans into the table where the pizza's disappearing as fast as the ace in a three-card monte game. He's been at the shelter for 40 days now. "I got tired of doing what I was doing," he explains.
"I was sleeping in abandoned buildings, cars, vans," he says. "Anything you could name, I was there."
Anything you could name, he was using, he says.
"Where'd I get the money from?" he repeats, sounding astounded. "I'm an addict. I take where I can get it. I manipulate. I steal, rob, whatever I got to do to get it. I want what I want when I want it. That's what I am.
"Now I know that I've got a disease, and it's going to be arrested," he says with a kind of uncertain determination. "I know got more work to do on it."