The challenge of charity

January 30, 2009|By Richard Lawrence, Colleen McCahill and Audrey Rogers

Many people in Baltimore want to do something to help the homeless residents of our city. But as we at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church have learned, some ways of helping end up doing more harm than good.

Ten years ago, our church acquired the park that lies at the foot of the Jones Falls Expressway. In an agreement with the city, the Baltimore Archdiocese and the Maryland Historic Trust, we agreed to keep the park as a park. When it became private, we allowed homeless people to sleep there. Now, 12 to 18 people sleep in the park on any given winter night. Others visit during the day. And many people come to the park to donate food or clothing. Our park has become a visible sign of homelessness in Baltimore.

Although we believe not one person should sleep on the street, we cannot tell someone with no housing options to move on. However, our small parish has paid a dear price. We relinquished our only green space and tolerate trash and crowds. It would be far more comfortable to post "No Trespassing" signs, replant grass and flowers, and reclaim our property. However, we find ourselves challenged to live a Christianity that cannot ignore the world's brokenness, and challenged to find meaning in a faith that reaches out to those in despair.

Mayor Sheila Dixon sees the human dimension of homelessness and has committed resources to it. Moreover, Ms. Dixon reached out through her Division of Homeless Services to partner with us in addressing the needs of the homeless in the park. Since the partnership started last year, our volunteer staff has identified more than 100 people who frequent the park, ascertaining the needs of many and linking them to services. Through Baltimore Homeless Services and others, 12 people are now housed and another dozen have housing vouchers.

There are many who care. Our Daily Bread provides a midday meal. The Salvation Army, Loyola University students, Bridgeway Community Church in Columbia and New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore bring suppers. Our Lady of the Fields Catholic Church provides a hot supper every Friday in our church hall. The St. Vincent de Paul Society placed a collection bin in the park to keep donated clothing clean and dry. We also have a free clothing program. Epic Church of Canton co-funds a portable toilet. We pay for a part-time liaison who enlists people living in the park to help keep it clean. Parishioner volunteer teams regularly remove mildewed and dirty discarded clothes, wet bedding and uneaten food. We posted a sign noting that only authorized donations are permitted.

But cold weather, media coverage and the spirit surrounding Christmastime produced a tsunami of food and clothes brought by people who ignored our sign and our efforts. Such donations may seem to be a perfect solution for leftover food or clothes, but excess food draws rats, and the "feel good" response enjoyed by donors is not necessarily shared by park residents - who, although they gratefully receive, tell us of their feeling of being "fed like dogs." Every month, hundreds of pounds of ruined clothes go to the city incinerator. This surplus and waste contributes not to the health and well-being of those in the park, but to the erosion of their dignity.

We beg good-hearted people to continue to be generous while becoming more discerning. More effective than bringing food or clothing to the park would be to support the agencies that give directly to the homeless and help them to a better life: Health Care for the Homeless, Our Daily Bread, the Salvation Army, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Beans and Bread, Helping Up Mission, the Maryland Food Bank and the new United Way Fund.

Finally, we urge residents to get their faith communities involved with us as active members of the Archdiocesan Beyond the Boundaries program and the Baltimore Regional Initiative for Genuine Equality (BRIDGE), organizations committed to inclusionary, affordable housing.

Nobody belongs on the street in America. We are our brother's keeper.

The Rev. Richard Lawrence is pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church. Colleen McCahill is president of the church's Parish Council. Audrey Rogers is coordinator of the St. Vincent de Paul Park Working Group.

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