Destitute handed gifts beneath I-83

Volunteers give clothing, blankets, meal tickets and, for the children, gift-wrapped games

  • Amber Coffman is handed a present by a helper that Coffman, founder of Happy Helpers for the Homeless, will pass on to one of the men waiting beneath the Jones Falls Expressway near Madison Street. The nonprofit group said it gave out 2,000 wrapped gifts.
Amber Coffman is handed a present by a helper that Coffman, founder… (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy…)
December 28, 2009|By Julie Scharper |

It's been a tough year for Mary Mack. During the warmer months she traveled with carnivals, but lean times meant fewer dollars spent on "Pick-a-Duck" and "Shoot-A-Cup," the games she operates. When Mack and her husband returned to Baltimore in the fall, they had $200 and no place to go. For several weeks, they slept on the ground outside her aunt's shed.

"We just live day by day, whatever we can do," said Mack, adding that Christmas was "terrible" this year. "We had nothing."

On Sunday, Mack and family members joined hundreds of others to receive free clothing, housewares and toys given away by a nonprofit group under a Jones Falls Expressway bridge.

Her husband, Marvin Mack, 49, and mother, Mary Dean, 65, who uses a wheelchair, received clothing and towels. The young relatives - Johnny Long, 10; J'Lynn Long, 7, and Dalen Mack, 4 - picked up board games and play sets.

The giveaway was organized by Happy Helpers for the Homeless, an organization founded by Amber Coffman in 1993 when she was 10 years old. The group is now run by her mother, Bobbi Coffman, but Amber, who works for a nonprofit in California, helps out when she visits home. On Sundays the nonprofit gives away clothes, blankets and meal certificates under the bridge, not far from Our Daily Bread.

Volunteer Jo Rock-Williams said more people than ever are looking for assistance. "I'm seeing more people who are losing their homes, losing their apartments, because they've lost their jobs," she said.

About half of the people who come for help live on the streets, a quarter have temporary homes and a quarter live in shelters, said Rock-Williams, who gathers clothing for Churches of Glen Burnie and Beyond, an organization she started this year.

The Mack couple have been staying with her mother for the past few weeks, but all three have serious health problems and are on fixed incomes. The oil heat hasn't been working lately, so the family turns on the stove burners to stay warm.

Mack, who dropped out of school in ninth grade, has had a hard time finding a job. She lost her birth certificate and other papers in one of her many recent moves and has had a hard time finding a job without paperwork, she said.

The money the family receives for food stamps was recently reduced from $360 to $290 a month, which makes it even harder to make ends meet, Mack said. The children, two second-cousins she has cared for since infancy and her husband's grandson, got few presents this year and were delighted to unwrap Monopoly, Chutes and Ladders and other games, she said.

Rock-Williams, the volunteer, said it was "a blessing" to be able to help the poor at this time of year. "I try to look to see where God is working and look to see what I can do to join in on it," she said.

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