City extends winter help to homeless, saving lives

April 01, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

I THINK there's a clinical term for it. "Compassion fatigue" comes to mind. Anyone who has watched the urban scene in America over the last 20 years - from a safe distance, via television, or from up close and so personal you can smell the whiskey on the panhandler's breath - has seen and heard so much about the homeless that stories about them have lost their power to generate sympathy and action.

Too depressing.

Too long on the public radar.

No Janet Jackson angle.

No laughs.

Been there, done that, heard the old smokehound's story about Vietnam.

Of course, the problem of homelessness in our midst has always represented one of the great urban-suburban disconnects: Many consider it - like drug addiction - a city problem, when the problem, in fact, transcends municipal borders. Few politicians are willing to fight the battles anymore, and it's especially hard in the suburbs, where opposition to shelters has risen along with the demand for them.

And then there's the tattered idea that we are our brother's (or sister's) keeper, a spiritual and moral premise that, since the 1980s, has grown increasingly unpopular as a government imperative.

In fact, I've heard a lot of people blame an enabling government for the persistence of these problems and express resentment of them. Why don't drug addicts just "snap out of it" and get a job? Why do women and children keep showing up homeless, asking for help? Why give it to them?

Americans spend so much time watching reality TV, they don't know what reality is.

Or don't want to know.

And let's face it, homelessness, especially among women and children, is one of the hardest realities. It's a dreary business that has persisted during a time when personal fortunes grew at breathtaking rates, and more Americans than ever built mansions for themselves or acquired multiple homes, all with the usual tax breaks.

Who has the stomach for such reflections anymore?

Still, the homeless have their advocates. There are small, silent armies out there, putting in the time and hard sweat. There are hundreds of volunteers who counsel, shelter, feed and provide medical care for the homeless, many of whom are mentally ill and have health problems compounded by their lack of shelter.

And in Baltimore, at least, there's a government that accepts a role in all this.

Unlike their peers elsewhere who remain in denial, city officials faced up to the bleak facts - a chronic lack of beds, year after year, in shelters operated by church groups and other nonprofit groups; more than 15,000 denials of shelter to men, women and children in 2002; a record of 77 deaths of homeless individuals in the coldest winter months in Baltimore during the previous decade.

So the city rolled out a plan to keep the homeless from freezing to death. It is called Code Blue, and it works.

The city established a Code Blue shelter in a rec center. The shelter opened when temperatures were expected to fall below 25 degrees, or when conditions were severe enough to "present a substantial threat to the life or health of people experiencing homelessness."

A city Health Department nursing team managed the place. An addictions counselor from Health Care for the Homeless, a volunteer from Baltimore Mental Health Systems and an employment counselor from the city's Office of Employment Development were on-site each night. A 34-passenger, wheelchair-accessible bus picked up people and brought them to the Code Blue shelter. They got a warm meal, a cot and blanket.

The Code Blue program's inaugural winter, 2002-2003, was among the most extreme in Baltimore's history, topped off with the Presidents Day storm that produced a record snowfall. But thanks to Code Blue, only four deaths from hypothermia were recorded by the state medical examiner's office for the entire winter.

And this winter, only one woman died in Baltimore for lack of shelter. She was 46 years old.

According to Jeff Singer of Health Care for the Homeless, the woman died of Dec. 17 of hypothermia, under the Jones Falls Expressway.

According to Melisa Lindamood of the city Health Department, the woman's death occurred within a day - just hours, in fact - of her release from a hospital, where she had been treated for an illness Lindamood would not disclose. "She was still medically fragile when released," Lindamood said, "and she probably shouldn't have been. ... She was released too early."

"It happens all too frequently," Dr. Peter Beilenson, the city's health commissioner, said. "We remain the only industrialized country that does not guarantee health care. Someone with health insurance would not have been put out on the street in this [woman's] condition."

Which points up another one of those problems that won't go away - the lack of comprehensive health care for the uninsured, 43 million and counting. Or maybe you knew that already.

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