Taking a midnight ride to help Towson's homeless

Two men from Rodgers Forge take to the streets to deliver food, blankets

January 13, 2014|Jon Meoli, jmeoli@tribune.com

Rob Williams returned to his Rodgers Forge townhouse very early Thursday morning and said it was the last time, at least for that week, that he and neighbor John Falconer would face the midnight chill to distribute blankets and food to the men and women sleeping on Towson's streets.

Their nightly missions during the coldest stretch in years were proving successful, but tiring.

"We don't want to exhaust ourselves early in the winter," Williams said.

Yet coming from a man who says if he doesn't go to bed exhausted then he hasn't given enough of himself in a given day — and whose hastily planned outreach became cause célèbre in his Towson community— it's hard to blame him for not keeping his word.

By Thursday, more donated blankets, clothing, and food were dropped off at his home. His neighborhood's enthusiasm for helping Towson's homeless meant the pair would ride again that night.

Williams, whose wide glasses separate a bald head from a thick white beard, is known to neighbors as "Mr. Rob." He walks neighbors' dogs all day, sleeps in the evenings, and wakes around 11 p.m. to walk a beat around Rodgers Forge as co-leader of their Citizens on Patrol.

When temperatures plummeted earlier this week, Williams messaged his neighbors through their online community, NextDoor, and asked if anyone knew of services available for the area's homeless.

Baltimore County reported last January in its annual survey that there were 919 homeless men and woman across the county. According to the county's website, there are shelters in Reisterstown, Rosedale, Woodlawn, and Catonsville, but not in Towson. According to Baltimore City's website, an estimated 2,638 people are on the streets each night in that jurisdiction.

The Assistance Center of Towson Churches, located behind Calvary Baptist Church on East Pennsylvania Avenue, provides daytime aid to those in need, but its staff worries about those who can't find overnight shelter in the area.

"Our concern is that the people who are not staying in shelter are getting sufficient cover with the cold and unusually hard winter that we're having now," ACTC Executive Director Cathy Burgess said. "It's a difficult thing to take care of, because we can instist they go to a shelter … but there are people who won't go."

Williams found that his best option proved to be fueled by his own compassion. He and COP co-leader Falconer decided to drive around downtown Towson to find the homeless and offer them blankets. They cal it Operation BOLT— the Blankets Of Love Tour.

Their first tour was Jan. 6, Monday night, though county police had rounded up the area's homeless and delivered them from the single-digit cold into area shelters. Tuesday night wasn't much warmer, but the Rodgers Forge pair found two men near the library who accepted their assistance.

One, who calls himself "Birdman," is well known in the York Road corridor for his songs and impeccable birdcall. The other is named Timmy Teabout.

"(We) were able to bless them with some blankets and food and some drink," Williams said. The men helped Williams and Falconer find where others might be, and after an hour search that turned up no others, they concluded their Tuesday night tour.

"This is an outreach that I'm perfecting as we go along each and every night, trying to maximize our potential," Williams said as he prepared just before midnight for Wednesday's tour.

A dozen blankets neighbors delivered to his house were piled on his living room couches. In the kitchen, Williams broke a loaf of bread and ladled an Italian sausage dish into paper cups as meals to give out that night.

Falconer, who works the late shift at an alarm-monitoring center, got off his shift at 11 p.m. and knocked on Williams' door at midnight.

The men left Rodgers Forge at around 12:20 a.m. to stock up on coffee and doughnuts at Royal Farms, where their tour would begin as well.

A woman named Belinda Brown, who told the pair she was homeless, waited outside pulling on a cigarette when Falconer and Williams emerged with their haul. Bundled in a heavy black coat, Brown explained that she bought an all-day bus pass each morning and spent her days riding around the city, but missed her Baltimore stop and found herself in Towson.

As she told her story, tugging at her worn gray knit hat, Falconer returned to the car for a wool blanket. Other customers filed past, looking quizzically at Williams, seemingly for paying Brown any mind. Williams, a former deacon, listened with a sympathetic ear for nearly 10 minutes.

"All these people want is a little compassion, someone to listen to them for a while," Falconer said, as Williams brought Brown into the store and bought her a box of fried chicken.

Fortified by Krispy Kreme and success, Falconer pulled out of the convenience store Towson as Brown boarded the #8 bus back to the city, blanket under her arm.

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