Cold Comfort

It's a small, some might say futile, gesture. But handing out sleeping bags on a freezing night is one man's first step to changing how the homeless live

January 20, 2004|By Gerald P. Merrell | Gerald P. Merrell,SUN STAFF

By 8 o'clock on a recent night, the streets of Baltimore were virtually deserted as wind gusts of 32 mph drove temperatures into the teens and people inside.

Patrick Rhodes and Melissa Faith Coleman were two exceptions. They spent part of the night roaming the streets of Baltimore, seeking out homeless people who might be in need of a sleeping bag.

They found one man just off of Fleet Street near Eaton Street. He was seeking sanctuary from the biting Arctic air behind two pea-green utility boxes.

He took two sleeping bags - one for himself, the other, he said, for a buddy - and mumbled a thank-you as he hurried to unroll one of the bags.

Another man was camped out on the sidewalk along Guilford Avenue. Two cardboard boxes, each open at one end so he could curl up between them, and a flimsy blanket were his only buffers from the cold.

As Rhodes handed the man the sleeping bag, he also offered an apology: I'm sorry, he told him, but the bag isn't new.

The bag's new owner was unfazed. But Patrick Rhodes was frustrated. On this freezing night, he had only three sleeping bags to give away, a tiny number in a city with as many as 5,000 homeless, almost 10 percent of them not served by shelters.

"I wish we could do more tonight, but ... " he said, never completing the sentence.

Doing more, much more, is the grander dream of the 31-year-old architect. Four years ago, with two other graduate students at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles, Rhodes founded Project Locus, a nonprofit organization that hopes to rebuild blighted communities across the country.

A Baltimore resident since late 2002, Rhodes works as an architect with Peter Ratcliffe Architects in Towson. As executive director of Project Locus, an organization staffed by six volunteers, he hopes to acquire vacant, dilapidated buildings in his adopted city and convert them into livable homes and businesses for the poor.

But while he contemplates that goal, Rhodes has been prompted to do something concrete to help the homeless now.

The idea came to him two nights before Christmas, when he and his girlfriend, Coleman, were leaving the Charles Theatre.

"It was pretty cold that night," he recalls. "A guy came up and asked another couple if they had a dollar. I went back and gave the guy some money. He was so happy. He gave both of us a hug."

As they walked to their car, Rhodes told Coleman, "You know, it's cold. I've got this old sleeping bag in the back of my car. I'm just going to give it to him."

They drove around the block until they spotted the homeless man again. "I told him, I've got this sleeping bag, do you want it? He couldn't believe it. I have never seen anyone happier."

Since that chance encounter, Rhodes has spent virtually every free minute trying to convince others that no homeless person, even those who may refuse to use shelters, should die from the cold. He decided to try to provide sleeping bags to any homeless still on the streets.

He hoped others would embrace his effort. But after spending an entire Saturday two weekends ago seeking help, Rhodes discovered just how wrong he was.

Hat in hand, he went from one local business to another, in effect, becoming a panhandler himself, asking for whatever they could give to help him purchase sleeping bags.

He ended the day with $15 - a five-dollar bill from one store, and a 10 from another.

Most of those he visited turned him away, offering an assortment of excuses: the program seems haphazard, it's too late for this winter, the homeless could sell the sleeping bags to purchase drugs or alcohol.

Spontaneous effort

That response was hardly what he hoped for, but Rhodes refuses to quit. The numbers explain why: He cites studies that show 38 homeless people have frozen to death in the city over the last five years, and almost 80 over the past 10.

His effort, he acknowledges, is spontaneous, not methodically planned. But that shouldn't matter, he says.

"Ten people died from this last year," Rhodes says. "Everybody is telling me, `It's probably too late.' But it's cold out there. It's never too late. ... There's people all around out on the street.

"I realize that it's right after Christmas and everyone's hit pretty hard," he adds. "I just read an article that it's like the greatest indebtedness since the 1970s in this county, so people are really kind of strapped. But 25 bucks is a dinner out. How hard is that?"

Donna L. Rich, director of development for the Baltimore Office of Homeless Services, says she supports any act of humanity, but warns against "encouraging" the homeless to remain on the streets.

"We don't want people to sleep on the street," she says. "We'd prefer that folks who want to help direct them to a shelter."

Still, she adds, "some help is better than no help ... that's the humanitarian thing to do."

Bigger dream

Whether a wise practice or not, providing sleeping bags to the unsheltered is just a small step in Rhodes' bigger dream, one he describes with unabashed idealism.

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