Demolition error shows homeless go neglected

October 21, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ON SOUTH EDEN Street, which is not the same as North Eden Street, there is now a muddy hole in the ground where there used to be a grubby little stop for the poor and the homeless. In such an hour, we can curse the idiocy that brought us to such a condition, or we can do what we normally do, which is to wish the poor would go away.

Or we can say thank you to the Lancers Boys Club, for prodding our collective conscience on such matters.

The boys are putting together a Nov. 7 Walk for the Homeless, a heartfelt project they commenced even before this week's news of the latest fumble by the city's Housing Authority.

Maybe you noticed the headline in Tuesday's newspaper: "City acknowledges error in demolition of building." A joke, right? Maybe you knock on the wrong door, maybe you dial the wrong phone number. But who demolishes an entire building by mistake?

This building, admittedly no prize, housed a little nonprofit operation called the South and Southeast Development Organization. They provided help for those who needed it, despite troubles of their own. For instance, they had no electricity. This tells us much about the value we have, and the support we give, for such organizations that assist the poor.

Irona Pope, director of the outfit, said of course there was no electricity. She kept the power off to save money. When the poor and homeless came by, she handed out food she'd bought that day, and thus spared herself the expense of refrigeration.

Until the other day, that is. A crew from the Housing Authority had orders to demolish the building at 13 N. Eden St. But that place, although marked for the wrecking ball, looked pretty good compared to Irona Pope's place at 13 S. Eden, a block away. So the housing guys figured there was an error on the work order -- and demolished the wrong building.

"A mistake," said a Housing Authority spokesman with a gift for understatement.

But maybe it's also a reflection of our disregard for the poor and the homeless, who seek assistance in such a dump as to be mistaken for a condemned building, and consistently fall just off our sympathy radar screen. There are a lot of such people.

In Baltimore city and county, for instance, about 18,000 homeless people received temporary shelter last year -- and more than 20,000 were turned away for lack of space.

More than half the homeless are women and children. Nearly a third are military veterans. About 12 percent of those sleeping in shelters work for a living. About 23,000 people are on the city's public housing waiting list.

All of which brings us back to the Lancers Boys Club, and their walk for the homeless on Nov. 7. Where others find the homeless an inexplicable annoyance in such robust economic times, the Lancers have extended a helping hand.

"Our biggest and most challenging project ever," says the semiretired former chief judge of the Baltimore Circuit Court, Robert Hammerman, who founded the Lancers 54 years ago and continues to serve as their adviser.

"I'm proud of them," adds Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, a Lancers alumnus. "Homelessness is a problem. This is part of the answer."

Hammerman got the idea last fall, when he read about the Fannie Mae Corp. sponsoring a walk for the homeless in Washington. He asked if there was such an event in Baltimore. No, he was told.

He suggested such an event to the kids in Lancers, who embraced it as a way to raise awareness for the homeless, and raise money for institutions offering direct help.

For the Lancers, a club known historically for terrific athletic teams, the walk is only part of an impressive community service record. They raise about $10,000 a year for college scholarships for needy high school girls and boys. They do considerable volunteer work at Children's Hospital with permanently disabled children. They tutor about 100 public school kids. They work with the elderly, pitch in on environmental projects, volunteer at soup kitchens, visit nursing homes, collect books for local libraries, and collect food, clothing and toys for the needy.

And now, there's the Nov. 7 walk for the homeless. The 5-kilometer walk will begin at the Johns Hopkins University, behind the Museum of Art. (Applications can be picked up at area Giant Food stores, or at the Graul's food stores in Ruxton and on Padonia Road. Or call 410-323-2723.)

It's nice to see young people with a social conscience. In a time when money-lust drives the national agenda, and the poor are considered an annoyance, the Lancers can take a little bow.

Especially in such a week as this -- when a grubby hovel where the poor sought help is demolished, because it looked worse than a building that really was marked for the wrecking ball.

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