Bea Gaddy's legacy of selfless service

Memorial: Baltimoreans can honor her memory by redoubling efforts for the hungry and homeless.

October 04, 2001

POLITICIANS thought of Bea Gaddy when they were looking for a place where they could seem interested in inner-city problems. They would use one of her resource centers as a backdrop. They wanted to borrow her credibility.

A judge once sentenced an offender to community service with Ms. Gaddy -- without telling her.

When producers of The Corner wanted to get rid of a decrepit house they had used in filming here, they gave it to her for $1, perhaps imagining her miracle-working would turn it into a home.

In nearly a quarter-century of struggling to make people care about the hungry and homeless, Bea Gaddy achieved a real celebrity, much deeper and more meaningful than the kind we ascribe to so many others.

People relied on her -- and began to take her for granted. She did what many of us were unwilling to consider until she made it seem urgent and uplifting and essential.

Now, with her death yesterday from breast cancer, the community that mourns her must find a way to refocus its concerns, to redouble its efforts to solve the problems she made us recognize.

In the end, Ms. Gaddy could not rehabilitate the hulk of a house she willingly bought from producers of The Corner.

But in a way, she accomplished more difficult feats.

"She made the invisible visible," said Peter Sabonis, one of the other homeless advocates in Baltimore.

The people with "Will work..." or "Homeless" or "Vietnam vet" signs were embraced by Ms. Gaddy and, if we could not see them, we could not fail to see her.

Homeless herself at one point, Bea Gaddy's nonprofit agency sometimes seemed as needy as its clients -- and that was a good thing in the end.

Diverse people rallied to help her. A high school rock band in Anne Arundel County held a benefit to replace two stoves damaged in a fire at her center. The impulse to volunteer was, no doubt, strengthened during her life, making many people -- including politicians -- think about serving mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving or Christmas. And millions of federal dollars were spent.

Now the community must find ways to sustain her work.

Truth be told, Ms. Gaddy's organization left a lot to be desired on the operational side.

A 1994 Sun story outlined serious shortcomings in the operation of her charity -- missed filing deadlines, little documentation of how money was spent -- that appeared to threaten its long-term survivability.

That may all have been understandable; Ms. Gaddy was a charity worker (and later a member of the City Council), not a CEO. But her wonderful legacy of helping others will have died with her if efforts aren't made to formalize and expand her organization.

One year ago, a task force proposed numerous renewed approaches to helping the estimated 2,500 among us who have no home.

When the homelessness task force reported, she said, "I never thought I'd see the day that people really got together to do something."

A year later, though, many of the recommendations in that report remain undone.

A more systematic approach to homeless services is needed.

More sheltering help is needed particularly for homeless women and children.

More affordable housing is needed.

We can't take Bea Gaddy for granted now. This community can't afford to take her legacy for granted, either.

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