A setback for `hot dog man'

Meals: A triple shooting in Harlem Park destroys the cart William Henderson used to give food to welfare-dependent kids.

March 13, 2000|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

When an ambushed car careened into William Henderson's cart in Harlem Park recently, it was the first time in five years there were no free hot dogs for the community's welfare-dependent children during their hungry last days of each month.

For half a decade, hundreds of desperate children have flocked to Edmondson Avenue and North Carey Street to get a free hot dog and soda from Henderson when their parents' food stamps are depleted, leaving refrigerators empty.

But last month, the droves of children, some walking a dozen blocks, came to the West Baltimore corner looking for the traditional meal, but instead found the hot dog cart gone.

"I knew the fact we did not have the hot dog cart would devastate the children because we no longer had the means to feed them," Henderson said. "They said, `Mr. Will, are you going to try to get another one?'"

Since 1995, Henderson, director of the Harlem Park Community Advocacy Group, has used the hot dog stand he bought for $1,500 as a community soup kitchen.

In a community in which the last census put the average yearly income at less than $8,000, Henderson said children in Harlem Park are often in despairat the end of the month.

"When the children come, you can see they are hungry and for that brief time we are able to help," Henderson said. "I can see it in their eyes."

These are the children left aghast, Henderson said, every time they visit the Inner Harbor and realize how different life is just two miles away.

They are children being raised in rat-infested slums where parents padlock refrigerators to keep drug-addicted relatives from stealing all the food.

Others have drug-addicted parents who go on feverish drug binges -- even selling their food stamps for a vial of crack -- when the welfare check arrives.

Some of the children have grown accustomed to nightly gunfire, but until last month many didn't understand how it could affect them.

On Feb. 16, a car was sprayed with gunfire at Edmondson Avenue and North Carey Street, killing the driver and wounding two passengers.

The car, which was hit by bullets from an assault weapon, careened out of control, slamming into Henderson's hot dog cart in the 500 block of N. Carey St. The car then struck a commercial building and Henderson's rowhouse.

Seeking replacement

Henderson, 46, plans a raffle to raise money to replace the cart before summer. Until then, residents say, a piece of the community is missing.

"He is one of the good guys in the community," said Larry Blake, of the 500 block of N. Carey St. "He feeds everybody."

Henderson, a former reporter and columnist at The Afro-American, the city's black newspaper, modeled his hot dog cart after Operation Champ, which supplied food and organized activities for Harlem Park children in the 1960s.

"As a child, I benefited from that program," Henderson said.

After leaving journalism, Henderson attended the Community Law Center in 1995 and obtained a community advocacy certificate. The program enabled him to start his Harlem Park advocacy organization, which represents tenants during landlord disputes.

In the summer, Henderson, a contractor, maintains neighborhood playgrounds and oversees a fire-hydrant sprinkler at Harlem Avenue and North Carey Street.

But everyone, from Western District police officers to carryout owners, knows Henderson as the "hot dog man."

Although he doesn't have a vendor's license, Henderson and his cart hit the streets the last few evenings of every month to hand out about 250 hot dogs a night.

Local business owners donate the hot dogs, which are usually eaten within an hour, and Henderson plays music from a large radio.

He says the event turns what traditionally is a depressing time of the month for welfare recipients into a mini block party.

"He is the bright side of this neighborhood," said Ronnie Lee, owner of Carey Food Market.

A vital role

Sue Fitzsimmons, a spokeswoman for the city Department of Social Services, said Henderson and others like him serve a vital role in blighted Harlem Park.

Only 2 percent of the neighborhood's 3,671 residents are college-educated and more than half live below the poverty line.

Fitzsimmons said the average welfare mother of three receives $503 a month in cash assistance and $426 in food stamps.

"People let the money stretch as long as it can," Fitzsimmons said, noting she believes Henderson's free hot dog stand is the only one of its kind in the city.

Fitzsimmons said the city's food pantries and soup kitchens see a sharp rise in the number of people they feed around the end of each month.

Police said they have made no arrests in the triple shooting that destroyed Henderson's hot dog cart, but a patrol car and two officers have been assigned to sit at the corner almost every day.

Henderson said the officers' presence is working to reduce crime, but on Friday afternoon several gunshots were fired about a block north of where the patrol car was parked.

Henderson believes neighborhood children who grow up hungry today are more likely to be the gangsters of tomorrow. He hopes to raise $2,000 to replace his cart.

"Unless we get another one, it is going to permanently cripple the hot dog cart," Henderson said. "Last month was hard enough. At a crucial time it was needed but not available because of what?"

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