Door still open to couple in need

July 20, 2008|By Dan Rodricks

Matt Bjonerud is the young, urban professional who opened his Baltimore rowhouse to a homeless couple last winter. They're still with him this summer. The man still panhandles. But his wife found a job. They no longer sleep in a tent. That's progress.

The first time I told you about Bjonerud - it was in March, Easter Sunday - he had just brought the couple in from the cold. They had been living in a ramshackle encampment of homeless people adjacent to a parking lot on an industrial backstretch on the city's south side - far out of sight of most of us, except for when they panhandled on Russell Street.

Bjonerud, a Montgomery County native and 2007 Georgetown graduate, had moved to Baltimore to take a job with a bank. He spent his days downtown in a suit and tie, and his evenings in sweats and a hoodie, walking the streets near his rented two-story rowhouse. He was looking for someone he could help, acting on the Jesuit ideal of "men for others."

While an undergrad at Georgetown, Bjonerud had organized a soup-for-the-homeless program; he and other students slept in tents and cooked on camping stoves beside a bank off M Street. The idea was to understand the homeless by moving among them, living like them and inviting them to meal and conversation.

Bjonerud was doing something similar in Baltimore this year when he met Linda and Patrick and invited them to live with him rent-free.

In my original column in March, the couple were identified as "Lydia" and "Paul." They had asked not to be identified in any way for personal reasons. Since then, they've agreed to the use of their real first names, but still not their last.

Originally, I called Matt Bjonerud only "Michael" for the following reasons: He didn't want people to think he was a publicity hound, and he wanted no one - his landlord, his neighbors, his parents, his coworkers - to know about his housemates. I told Matt that when he was ready to be fully identified, I would write again about his experiences. I found his generosity remarkable, sincere and worthy of attention. Readers have been asking when there'd be another column about him.

Bjonerud is more confident about what he's doing, less worried about repercussions. His parents and some friends know about Linda and Patrick now. Five months into this experience, things are going pretty well.

"Linda got a job at a hospital, and she's about to get her first paycheck, and that's going to be big," Bjonerud says. "It took a while, and she had some issues, all legitimate, but she finally found something. Patrick has been more of a challenge. He does little side jobs here and there, and we distributed a [man-for-hire] flier. But he still panhandles."

Patrick is in his 40s and walks with a hard limp from an on-the-job injury. A home-improvement company laid him off in December; the loss of income led to the loss of the rooms he and his wife had rented in Glen Burnie. They lived in a van for a while.

Patrick keeps hoping for a construction job, but he panhandles along Russell Street in the meantime.

"I've been confronting him a bit on that, trying to help him," Bjonerud says. "I tell him he can't wear the same bummy clothes all the time - they're helpful when you're panhandling but not when you apply for a job. And let's stop trying to find a construction job during one of the worst economic downturns we've ever had. Let's move on to something else."

But the something else might have to be disability compensation, something for which Patrick says he has applied. That's one of the reasons he might be slow to take a new job, as much as he says he'd like one: Performing physical labor and claiming a disability add up to a contradiction.

"I can't give Patrick an ultimatum," Bjonerud says. "I can't push him out of the house. I'm not going to do that.

"But the story for now really is Linda," he adds. "A friend of mine sent her some earrings. She leaves the house and goes to work each day. She does most of the cooking. She and Patrick bring most of the food into the house; they get it from soup kitchens and pantries. They make the food happen. Linda had been given a Visa gift card, and she was going to use it on beauty supplies but bought groceries with it instead."

A swimming pool contractor named Jim Bright contacted The Sun a couple of months ago to get in touch with Bjonerud and help him out. I hooked the two up. "He gave us his economic stimulus package check," Bjonerud says. "That was so awesome. It was $600. I used it to pay the electrical bill."

Bjonerud told his parents about Patrick and Linda. They were proud of his generosity but concerned and, according to Bjonerud, took the position that there were more effective ways of helping the homeless - joining the boards of nonprofits that work with them, for instance.

Some friends had suggested he start a charity. "No, thanks," Bjonerud wrote in an e-mail a while back. "We have plenty of charities, soup kitchens and shelters. They are all doing necessary and good work. I am not starting a charity. I am not criticizing the city or the system. I am not raising awareness about the homeless. I am not an 'example.' I am simply living in my house with some homeless, who have become housemates, who have become friends."

They've become close to kin now.

"Linda told some people in the neighborhood that I was her and Patrick's son," Bjonerud laughs. "She did that, basically, because she wanted them to stop asking questions about us. But you know what? Most of the people my age around here are living with their parents, so it fits with the neighborhood."

d an.rodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks can be heard on "Midday," Mondays through Thursdays, noon to 2 p.m., on 88.1 WYPR-FM.

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