A new start

Editorial Notebook

April 01, 2006|By MARJORIE VALBRUN

James Edward Barnes, Vietnam vet, former migrant worker and one-time family man, has an apartment - finally. Granted, the second floor walk-up is not much to look at. It's in a dingy, run-down building in Reservoir Hill and furnished with little more than an old couch, a mattress and box spring, and a kitchen table with a couple of chairs. Still, it's his, and after 25 years of living on the streets, that means something.

"It's beautiful," Mr. Barnes says of his new home. "When I put that key in the door, there's no word to describe how it feels. Believe me, being out there on the brick, it was tough."

Mr. Barnes knows something about life "on the brick," having spent so many of his 62 years sleeping on cold sidewalks, in dark alleys and - on lucky nights - in homeless shelters. His was a life that seemed permanently interrupted by acute depression and drug abuse, and destined to end tragically. But then he got the apartment four months ago and everything changed.

A social worker who befriended him last summer in a downtown city park, known affectionately by its unofficial "residents" as "Bum Park," persuaded him to take part in a city program that houses chronically homeless people in subsidized apartments. The goal of the "housing first" initiative is to get people such as Mr. Barnes into stable living conditions and eventually into treatment for the mental illnesses and addictions that kept them on the streets for so long.

So far, 25 homeless people have gotten apartments since the program began last August. Many of them have been transformed as a result, establishing trusting relationships with caseworkers and becoming receptive to treatment they used to resist. Three of them have even gotten jobs.

Having a safe and reliable place to lay their heads at night and to keep their meager possessions, being able to shower and eat regularly, no longer being repeatedly ticketed or arrested for loitering - it has a big effect on them.

Baltimore Homeless Services Inc., an arm of the city Health Department, now plans to expand the program using 80 more apartments. This is a worthwhile strategy for fighting the city's persistent homeless problem and should help Baltimore duplicate the success that New York, Philadelphia, Denver, San Francisco and Minnesota have had using the "housing first" model.

"This is the best program they can have for the homeless," says Mr. Barnes, who says he used marijuana, alcohol, cocaine and heroin for years to numb his sadness over his wife's death in 1983.

"It's not a good excuse for becoming homeless," he says. "But it's hard to deal with the loss of someone you love."

He says he quit using drugs in his 50s. "Sometimes you have to wait until you get old to get your head together," he says. "It takes a while."

Mr. Barnes says he thought often about coming in off the streets, but would think about paying rent and utility bills, and buying groceries, and would feel completely overwhelmed. Then his homeless friends started dying.

"That opened my eyes," he says. "I didn't want to be another statistic. I'm already a statistic just having been out there for so long."

Mr. Barnes now spends his days in his apartment reading mystery novels, watching rental movies and cooking.

"I went from 155 pounds to 182 pounds in four months," he says, rubbing his stomach and laughing.

He doesn't go out much. "I've got everything I need right here," he says.

Last year, 84 homeless people died in the city. Five of them froze to death; two others were beaten to death last November. Most died alone, unnoticed and unheralded by the larger community, and long estranged from their families. More will likely die lonely deaths this year, but Mr. Barnes says he won't be among them.

"Me and God have an understanding," he says. "I believe in him as a higher power and he keeps me here for a reason."

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