Homeless, out of work, but not hopeless

March 01, 2009|By JEAN MARBELLA

In many ways, his life is not much different than before.

At 47, Anthony Cain still works in construction, pointing to any number of buildings in town - from Park School to Sinai Hospital, a Starbucks here and a Barnes and Noble there - where he's put up sheet metal or laid in ductwork. On weekends, he sleeps a little later, relaxes and has Sunday dinner, complete with his two grandchildren, at his son's house.

But one other great joy, fishing, has become part of a past that seems to grow more distant by the day - a time when he had his own place, a townhouse in Essex. "Right on the water," he remembers wistfully. "I could fish every day. It was pretty good."

But fishing, a car and, most of all, a roof of his own overhead are now all gone. When he goes to sleep now, it is in a homeless shelter - something that, even after months of living out of two backpacks and grabbing a cot at the 24-hour shelter on Guilford Avenue, still seems as raw and unreal as his first night in this refuge of last resort.

"It was scary," he told me this week as we talked in the one-time municipal building that has been converted into a shelter. "I thought, 'I can't stay there. I can't stay with a bunch of people I don't know.' "

Baltimore City homeless officials say they are seeing more Anthony Cains turning up on their doorstep: vctims of the worsening economy, people who despite working, sometimes full time, can no longer afford their own homes.

"For the first time, we're seeing people who have never sought shelter before," said Diane Glauber, who heads the city's homeless services division. "Maybe they've lost their job, or gotten sick or divorced. There's usually an event in their lives. It doesn't take much - even a utility bill that's higher than usual."

Glauber said that as the recession deepens, the usual safety nets are fraying. She thinks that has contributed to about a 10 percent increase in homelessness in Baltimore since 2007; a census conducted last month put the current figure at about 3,300. Ending homelessness is a major ambition of Mayor Sheila Dixon, who announced Friday that the city had received its largest-ever grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, $21.5 million. It will be used to help people keep their existing housing and prevent homelessness.

Cain's descent into homelessness began with one of those debilitating events, but one he probably could have recovered from if the economy hadn't melted down at the same time. More than a year ago, he started losing movement in his arms, caused by a disc problem in his neck that required surgery. But during his lengthy hospital stay and recovery, he lost his construction job.

The cascade began: He had been living from paycheck to paycheck as it was, and, without a job, he couldn't afford his rent and had to leave the townhouse. He couldn't afford to keep his car. He stayed with his mother in Northeast Baltimore until she grew ill and had to move to a nursing home. Then it was off to the home of his sister, who has since moved out of state, then some friends put him up for a while, and finally, he spent a couple of weeks on the street.

Although he has a son in town, and two siblings in Pennsylvania, he doesn't want to impose on relatives who are raising families of their own. "I don't want to be a burden," he said. "I'm a grown man."

What seems to pain him most these days is the lack of steady work.

"It irks me to the core. I don't know what to do when I'm sitting around. I'm not used to it," he said. "It's really hard when you're not working. I love to work."

Construction has been hit particularly hard by the recession, and jobs are increasingly spotty and scarce. Companies he has worked for in the past are kaput, and he has gotten no callbacks from the 40 or so job applications he has out there. He relies on temp jobs.

Every weekday, he wakes up at 3:30 a.m. to get to a nearby office where he can sometimes land a construction job by 4 a.m. The office doesn't open until 5:45 a.m., and there are usually four or five people in line by then.

"But I'm the very first," he said. "If you don't get there until 6 or 7:30, the jobs are gone already."

The week before last, he worked 24 hours; the week before that, a full 40. But you never know what you'll get.

"The last time I worked was Monday, eight hours. Tuesday, nothing. Wednesday, nothing. Today," he said on Thursday, "nothing. This is the first week I've been shut down like this in a long time."

Even when he works, though, it's usually for minimum wage, so he still has a way to go before he can save up for the usual first-last-and-security he needs to get back into a rental property. Still, he dreams of opening his own home improvement company. "There are still a lot of homeowners," he said.

As I listen to him talking about getting to the temp agency early enough to get whatever work is out there, or to the shelter early enough to get a cot, I feel exhausted for him, and hopeless, too: How easily he seemed to fall from a decent living, and how daunting the climb back up promises to be.

And yet Cain refuses to join his own pity party. He plugs on, noting that despite his depressing surroundings, the shelter's central location puts him near the temp agency and the office where he plans to go someday for that home improvement license.

"I have to keep a positive attitude," he said. "There's no reason to mope around - you do that, and at the end of the day you still have the same problems. The economy has to rebuild, and that's what I have to do, too."

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