Meeting puts new light on homeless

November 14, 2007|By GREGORY KANE

Cornell Bass, a devout Christian who helps feed homeless people twice a week at the Oasis shelter at the corner of Gay Street and Fallsway, is also the media director of the Maryland State Wrestling Association.

So it's no surprise that Bass immediately recognized Ron Taylor when he visited Oasis one day. After all, Taylor was an assistant coach in wrestling, football and track and field at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School for 12 years. He was also an assistant wrestling coach at the McKim Center, which fields an inner-city junior league grappling squad.

A hulk of a man known to many as "the Bear" and whose full first name is spelled "Ronard," Taylor also recognized Bass, who thought Taylor had also come out to help feed the homeless. But Bass was in for a surprise.

Taylor was one of the homeless.

So there he was last Thursday evening around half past six, when Bass alighted from his car, accompanied by a man who looked very similar to a guy known in these parts as "Spats." Yes, that was indeed old No. 24 himself -Baltimore Colts great running back/receiver Lenny Moore - who had come to help Bass feed the homeless and greeted many of them with a hug as he said, "How are you, my brother?" or "How are you, my sister?"

The Bear stood beside me, taking it all in, glancing at me as I jotted down notes. Then he asked if I were there because Spats had come to help feed the homeless or to write about the plight of those who use the shelter, which was scheduled to be closed Nov. 2 but got a reprieve from Mayor Sheila Dixon. (The city plans to open a temporary shelter for the Oasis residents in the 1600 block of Guilford Ave.)

I told the Bear I was on hand to do a story about the homeless, but I was there for more than that. I needed a graphic and humbling lesson in why I shouldn't stereotype homeless people, and providence, fate or dumb, blind stupid luck had delivered me into the paws of the Bear to be sure I got one.

There's a Cliff Notes version of how I feel about the homeless - or, rather, how I used to feel before the Bear got a hold of me. To cut straight to the chase, I figured most of them were just screw-ups, people so trifling that their own family members wouldn't take them in when they fell on hard times. The first line of defense against anyone becoming homeless is now, always has been and always will be the family. At least that's what I figured.

The Bear cleared that up immediately.

"I have no family to speak of," he told me. Then he told me of how he went from high school coach to school bus driver to Wal-Mart worker to homeless man in a little over 10 years. The Bear's body basically quit on him. First the high blood pressure came. Then the kidney problems. Then the back problems. Then the knees - both arthritic - went. Angina sent him to Johns Hopkins Hospital.

"Everything on my body started breaking down," the Bear said. "I didn't have any health insurance."

He couldn't make it to work because of his health problems and soon found himself unemployed. About a year ago he couldn't pay the rent on his apartment and found himself on the streets. He also found a feeling he wasn't familiar with.

"I was ashamed," the Bear said. But with that shame came a newly discovered empathy for other homeless people.

"Being homeless has put a new light on the way I look at people," the Bear told me. "All of them have different reasons why they're homeless. They're not all crazy; they're not all violent offenders or drug addicts. Some have mental problems; some have physical problems."

And that's when it hit me: Was I only a "physical problem" or two away from being right out there with the Bear myself? If my health failed who would take my curmudgeonly, soon-to-be-56-year-old carcass in? Heck, I can't stand being around me half the time.

The Bear at least doesn't have that problem. He's a bespectacled, warm, friendly cuss who seems like darned good company. He spends his days at the Oasis shelter, watching television. At night he takes his bed - a sleeping bag and a sheet - from a plastic wrapping and another sleeping bag he keeps in a trash bag and hunkers down under the I-83 overpass right across the street from The Sun building.

"I keep myself relatively warm," the Bear said about how he handles cold weather. He has no plans to "move" to the new shelter on Guilford Ave. when the outdoors become too frosty.

"If I have to," he said, "I'll live under [here] for the winter."

And that's where you'll find him, at least until society's safety net catches him.

greg.kane@baltsun.com

Find Greg Kane's column archive at baltimoresun.com/kane

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