At library, warm hearts give homeless a respite from cold

February 03, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

AT THE Catonsville Public Library, Frederick Road in southwest Baltimore County, Marlene Kuhl remembers the guy who passed out cold in front of the New Nonfiction section. This was unfortunate, and not only because it tends to give literature a bad name. It says we still talk about the poor and the homeless one way, and act another.

Now Kuhl, the branch manager, moved about the library and nodded toward Daniel Mingle, the security guard. The day was snowy and raw. The two of them focused on a guy who'd been sleeping for the last half-hour with a newspaper on the table in front of him, as if perusing the latest stock market updates. His snoring was the giveaway.

Mingle gently shook the man awake. The man, wearing an overcoat and a couple of sweaters, sat upright and said he was sorry, and pretended to go back to his newspaper. His eyes were tough to see beneath the brim of his baseball cap. From a slight distance, Kuhl smiled wanly and went about her work.

"It can break your heart," she said. "We've had homeless people come here so regularly, we get to know them by name. I mean, whoever thought we'd see this in Baltimore County, in a place like Catonsville? Most of them, they just sit there and talk to each other. Some of them fall asleep. I don't bother with them if they're not snoring. Or I'll give a little gentle tap after a while."

On this frigid winter day with cars edging gingerly along snowy Frederick Road outside, Kuhl seemed a kind of benevolent den mother. Something new is happening here, and nobody has precise ground rules for it. In the past two winters, says Kuhl, her library is seeing more of the homeless, who come in to warm their bones and stay as long as they can. Also arriving: more of the people from the county's west-side shelter at Spring Grove Hospital Center.

The shelter takes people in at 7 each evening and sends them back into the world at 7 the next morning. During the next 12 hours, you can find them at the library or at various business establishments along Frederick Road, trying to grab snatches of warmth here and there.

On this day, the air outside is so cold that your face starts to hurt in a matter of minutes. The wind seems to cut through all layers of clothing. At the library, says Kuhl, "You look at these people and think, `There but for fortune.' ... Why did they turn out this way? What happened to their lives? Very few have given us any trouble. They just want to get warm."

There are myths about the homeless: They're all junkies or winos. They have no one to blame but themselves. They all live in the city, which is home to all manner of human wreckage.

Then you visit the Catonsville Library, or talk to some of the waitresses at the Friendly's restaurant a few blocks away who see people come in from the cold, just to sit for a while, until they're finally asked to go someplace else.

Or you talk to Sandy Monck, coordinator for homeless services for Baltimore County's Office of Planning. It operates two shelters: one on the grounds of Spring Grove State Hospital, about five miles (and a direct bus route) from the Catonsville Library; the other, the Eastern Family Resource Center at 9100 Franklin Square in Rosedale, next to Franklin Square Hospital Center.

"The ones who come to us," says Monck, "are families. About one-third are women and children. Sometimes there's domestic abuse at home. There's some drug abuse and alcoholism, but there isn't a typical face of homelessness in Baltimore County, not like people think there is.

"Some of our folks have jobs, but they can't find affordable housing. The children go to school. They come to the shelters with the same questions as other kids: `Will I have friends here? Where will I go to school? Will I have clothes for school? What will people say when they find out I don't have a home?'"

What's striking about this are a few things: Monck's reminder of the pain of children, and the high percentage of families, and Kuhl's remark that she's seen such numbers at the library only in the past two winters. In the richest nation on earth, the jobs continue to disappear and the president's solution is tax breaks to the rich.

And, in Maryland, where Gov. Robert Ehrlich's State of the State speech last week all but ignored the poor, we now have a homeless advocacy group suing the governor for blocking new applicants to a program offering them minimal financial assistance.

Last year, Baltimore-area shelters had to turn away 14,159 people - triple the figure of 10 years ago. In the recent cold snap, some area shelter operators said demand was double their capacity to take them in.

What has also increased is suburban residents' fear of increased loitering and crime - and, in some cases, a desire to delay or destroy plans for new homeless shelters.

"Part of it," says Monck, "is public perception. They think the homeless are criminals who steal and rob, that they're drug addicts who deserve what's happening to them. Generally, that's not the case. We're not dealing with criminals. We're dealing with families trying to get by."

That's why, at the Catonsville Library, Marlene Kuhl and Daniel Mingle offer only a gentle nudge to wake those huddling from the cold. Literature may take a slight hit. But, in a frigid season, there is still occasional warmth in the human heart.

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