In an East Baltimore shelter, a testament to pain, patience

February 03, 2005|By DAN RODRICKS

STANDING THERE Tuesday morning in Earl's Place, a transitional shelter for homeless men, with Sheila Helgerson, who runs the place and who appears to be blessed with most of the patience God scattered on East Baltimore, I was struck by one of those truisms that seem at moments both trite and profound - helping men who used heroin for a good part of their lives is hard. It's just ... hard.

Many of those in recovery do fine; they smarten up, clean up and make good choices. But others fall off track, or keep going back to the drugs and booze that caused all their problems in the first place, or they make bad choices that frustrate those who try to help them.

Any of the hundreds of men and women who work in this field - as professionals in hospitals and clinics, or volunteers in shelters - know this. They live with it. They are missionaries in drug-infested Baltimore, trying to rebuild the soul of the city from the inside, one man and one woman at a time. Theirs is the quiet work critical to getting this city fully on its legs again by reducing the demand for the drugs that create the violence that mars municipal progress.

On the way to Earl's Place, I passed a remarkable neighborhood rising across Pratt Street from Little Italy, where there used to be high-rise public housing. There are new, smart-looking rowhouses and apartments everywhere, and more coming, all around Corned Beef Row. You can get downright optimistic about the future, especially if you remember the immediate past - the crime-ridden Flag House projects that for decades cast a long, sad shadow over this part of Baltimore.

Earl's Place is at the corner of Eden and Lombard, and it's where men coming out of addiction and homelessness can find a place to live and get their meals while they move into the working world. Helgerson and her staff have a lot of success stories to tell, and that's probably what keeps them going.

Tuesday, I finally met a man Helgerson has been telling me about for a year - Perry Johnson. He's homeless, and he gets around in a battery-powered wheelchair.

Helgerson, of course, is sympathetic to Johnson. She has known him for a few years, and he's a graduate of Earl's Place. But she recognizes, as even the most sympathetic stranger would, that this man contributed to the dilemma in which he finds himself today. He's 53 years old. He started using drugs when he was 22. When I asked what he did all those years, Johnson said, "Heroin." A few years ago, when he came out of a recovery program and moved into Earl's Place, he was clean. He worked in a big catering hall, and when he was ready to leave Earl's Place, he found an apartment and moved in with his girlfriend.Things were fine - for a couple of days. Johnson says he had pneumonia and was coughing so heavily that he slipped and fell in his bathroom. When his body slammed against the floor, he suffered a spinal cord injury that left him partially paralyzed. He can move his feet and legs a little, but he can't walk, and his right hand is lame. The accident affected his speech, too. "I can't holler," he says in a quiet, gravelly voice.

He went from a hospital to a therapy center and then a nursing home. He couldn't stand the nursing home and returned to his apartment.

But then something happened - a fight between him and his girlfriend. The girlfriend accused Johnson of assault, even as he sat in his wheelchair. He says he pleaded guilty to the charge and received two years' probation. "I could have beaten it," he says, "but I didn't." He says he took the probation instead of risking more jail time.

He had no place to go, no family to take him in. Helgerson let him sleep in a common area at Earl's Place, but after a month, she had to give him the boot for drinking again. "I got depressed," Johnson says. "So I drank."

He has been homeless most of the last year, living on $579 in monthly disability benefits. He spends a lot of time "near the federal building and the theater," referring to Hopkins Plaza and the vacant Mechanic Theatre.

His wheelchair tipped over in September, breaking Johnson's right ankle. He has apparently been sober the last few months, a condition of staying in a church-run shelter in Baltimore County. He rises there each day, dresses, eats and takes a Mobility/Paratransit bus to familiar places. One day he went to City Hall to ask for help finding a home. He applied for public housing, and his name is on a waiting list.

Perry Johnson waits in the wheelchair on the streets of the city, and sometimes he goes to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, and sometimes he goes back for a little while to Earl's Place, his alma mater, because Sheila Helgerson is there, and no matter what, she always gives him a smile and an encouraging word.

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