Homeless funding may be casualty

October 11, 2001|By Michael Olesker

THE WAR in Afghanistan reaches cold fingers into American crevices. At City Hall, Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. lifts the telephone and hears constituents worry: How vulnerable is Baltimore's drinking water? At Boys' Latin School, where Mitchell teaches history, he hears his students worry: Will there be a draft? He steps outside City Hall, where homeless people gather, and has his own worry: What will happen to these lost and vagrant souls as the nation's resources are increasingly diverted to war?

When Mitchell arrived at City Hall on Monday afternoon, he saw homeless people gathered at War Memorial Plaza. They're a daily sight there. Now the weather was getting chilly, and the sky beginning to darken. A woman told Mitchell she'd just been burned out of her home.

"I need a place to stay," she said. She had bags of clothing with her, the last remains of a tattered life. "Where can I go?"

Instinctively, Mitchell found himself start to utter a phrase: "Have you tried Bea Gaddy?"

Then he caught himself, and instead found his eyes welling up. It was too late now to try Bea. On Tuesday, the city said goodbye to Gaddy, who devoted much of her life to helping humanity's discards. Mitchell wondered: Where will they go now?

A decade ago, when the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended, the economists and great political thinkers coined a promising phrase: peace dividend. The premise seemed simple: Money previously needed for military possibilities would now be spent to restore America's neglected and undernourished communities.

Keiffer Mitchell remembers this. He thinks about it when he drives through the parts of his councilmanic district, West Baltimore, that resemble portions of Afghanistan after the missiles have struck. The roughest of the city's neighborhoods, and the most intransigent of its problems, remain untouched by any so-called peace dividend. In such areas, the drug traffic goes unabated, and everything else follows: desperation, street violence, vacant and decayed housing.

And now the peace dividend, such as it was, disappears.

"All this money we're spending," Mitchell said Tuesday afternoon, returning to City Hall after Bea Gaddy's funeral. "Billions on weapons and everything, it trickles down to the local level. How do we replace that money?"

He's not making a case against American military response - just stating the obvious, painful fact: The convulsions overseas will force painful changes at home.

"We have more police protection now," he said, "because we've got officers working 12-hour shifts. When the [budget] pie is sliced, that means other agencies will get less money. That means the people these agencies help will come up short. I got stopped outside Bea Gaddy's funeral. A guy said, `I need a job.' In good times, they say, `I need a good city job.' Now they just say, `I need a job. I need work.'"

But the jobs are getting tougher to find - anywhere. The airlines were the first to get hit, but other industries have followed. New York took the biggest losses - in lives, in physical damage and in economic blows - but other cities also feel it. Like New York, Baltimore relies heavily on tourist money. But who's in the mood to vacation when all nerves are frayed?

Keiffer Mitchell sees the nervousness among his Boys' Latin history students. These are high school kids who will soon sign up with Selective Service. The country no longer has a draft, but young men still have to register. Mitchell's students ask: What does this mean?

"They're concerned about the draft, about anthrax, about the effect on their lives," Mitchell said. "They're asking, `Are we going to get all the terrorists?' One kid pointedly said, `If it's like fighting the drug war, we're in for a long one.'

"We pulled up the Selective Service Web site and went through it, trying to sort things out a little bit. It was very quiet. Some of these kids, they like to cut up in class. But they were very serious about this. It's sobering to them. One boy said, `Are we gonna take another hit here? What can we do?' I said, `I know it sounds corny, but praying helps. Have faith. Have faith in each other.'"

There are no fixed answers, because all the questions are new. At City Hall, Mitchell gets phone calls from constituents: Suddenly, they're concerned about reservoir filtration systems. Or they're calling about the draft. Or they're asking about security in the public schools from threats never previously imagined.

Outside City Hall this week, Mitchell looked at those homeless people gathered as the temperature dipped and the sky darkened. Everybody at Gaddy's funeral said lovely things about her. But words fade, and memories vanish. Mitchell thinks a memorial should be built to Gaddy and placed outside City Hall where the homeless gather.

She was a helping hand for many going through a difficult season. Now it gets rougher. The city said goodbye to Bea on Tuesday, and now, in the widening war, says goodbye to the thing once known as a peace dividend. Say a prayer, Keiffer Mitchell sometimes suggests. It's the short answer until something else comes along.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.