Charity during a recession? See that it happens

December 25, 2009|By Jay Hancock

The Guilford Avenue homeless shelter is well-populated at 4 p.m. Remnants of the recent snowstorm make sidewalks impossible. Sun and temperature sink below comfortable on the shortest day of the year.

Inside are sandwiches, donated boots and backpacks, beds and sleeping mats, companions, counselors and heat. It'll be another overflow night.

But snowstorms and seasons aren't the main reasons for the refuge's popularity.

Baltimore's unemployment rate has doubled to 10.8 percent in two years. Nearly 6,000 Baltimoreans lost homes to foreclosure this year, according to the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance.

This economy has surpassed the power of the worst winter to drive people into institutional shelter.

"We've been at capacity all year," says shelter manager Milton Johnson. Even during summer. That never happened before in the nine years he's worked with the homeless, he says.

Good thing United Way just wrote an emergency $10,000 check to open a place for the dozens of folks Guilford Avenue has been turning away. Baltimore Homeless Services can now handle an additional 80 people on top of the primary shelter's capacity of 350.

Economists have problems accounting for charity. Economic models assume people seek to feather their nests as much as they can. Money for strangers doesn't fit the formulas, but economists try, assigning value to the virtuous glow experienced by someone who has just written a tax-deductible check.

For some donors, favorable publicity is more important than the gift, Jesus suggested. Anonymous alms for anonymous recipients are the penultimate level of meritorious charity, said a medieval Jewish scholar. Islam teaches that charity is inseparable from the faith.

The weak, the unlucky, the downtrodden - they don't care about motives. There are 200,000 unemployed Marylanders. The unemployment rate is the worst since the early 1980s.

The grim calculation of recessions is at work. Wherewithal shrinks as need expands. Baltimore Homeless Services needed the United Way grant partly because the state reduced emergency-shelter funding.

Last year, United Way of Central Maryland raised only $36 million, down from $39 million in 2007, a spokeswoman says. In January, just after the 2008 fundraising season had ended, it launched a new, emergency drive to get money for basic services such as food, shelter and heat.

Nonprofits haven't closed their 2009 campaigns. But it's hard to imagine that this year's take will be better than last year's.

"Often, we're finding that people who are seeking shelter are ones that donated to a shelter" previously, says Diane Glauber, acting director of human services for Baltimore.

Anthony Woodrup, 52, is an ex-addict trying to get clean. He's been using the Guilford Avenue haven for a year. A woman who gives her name only as Denise, 46, got there two weeks ago. She says she's a lawyer and was recently a millionaire. In this economy, maybe it's true.

Raymond Banks Jr., 57, hurt his hip, had his rent raised and stopped working as a mover in October.

They ate a Christmas dinner last weekend thrown by shelter employees and volunteers. Ham, turkey. Two kinds of chicken and macaroni and cheese. A raffle.

After karaoke, homeless clients took the mike to speak. "You really realized how thankful they are," said Sandra Thomas, the city's assistant director for homeless services.

Two days later, after the snowstorm, so many people sought warmth and dryness that Guilford Avenue and the overflow shelter were insufficient.

Fifteen people were sent into the night. Unemployment is supposed to get worse before it gets better. It's not too late to confound an economist by sending money to United Way or another worthy charity.

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