Canvas contains hopes and dreams of Catonsville shelter's residents

At the Westside Emergency Men's Shelter Wednesday evening, men gathered around a 3-foot by 3-foot canvas and — using acrylic paint in vivid colors — painted something that represented themselves.

The first image on the canvas was by 18-year-old Joseph Green, who dipped his brush in purple paint and began to fill out the Baltimore Ravens' logo.

Green was joined by his fellow shelter guests, who added pictures of the sun, a house, a cross, a smiley face with an afro, fingerprints and the word "Love" to the previously blank canvas in a symphony of color.

George Towson, a 57-year-old former Middle River resident, painted the initials TM.

"T for me and M is for my fiance," he said of Mary Wilson, who lives in the United Kingdom. "It just looks nice."

The activity was conceived and hosted by Andrea Ratajczack, the executive director of Lazarus Caucus, a Catonsville-based nonprofit organization that coordinates donations for the county's shelter on the Spring Grove Hospital campus. The group also organizes the meals at the shelter.

"The idea is that there is a community [of homeless men in Catonsville] ... that is often not recognized and they often don't have a presence," she said.

"Each of the 110 men that are dining there that night are going to put their mark on the canvas," she said. "This canvas is then going to tour Catonsville."

Ratajczack said the completed canvas will travel to different community organizations — including the Catonsville Library, Community College of Baltimore County and University of Maryland, Baltimore County — to raise awareness about homelessness and the shelter.

In addition to the group effort, the men at the shelter have created a number of individual paintings during the past months which will be sold by Lazarus Caucus during a Sept. 27 silent auction at Rolling Road Country Club.

"Some [of the paintings] were created by the men at the shelter, and some were created by the instructor who teaches at the shelter," Ratajczack said. "We are taking those monies and we supply or we meet the needs of the shelter guests in a very personal way."

She said the caucus, founded in 2003, is not only responsible for organizing food donations to the shelter. The group also staffs a resource room in the building where the men can buy books for school, apply for jobs, get clothes and even obtain bus tokens.

"It's a very personal type of help, with very concrete results," Ratajczack said.

"We support the shelter but we also support the needs of people that are having issues related to homelessness," she said.

Shelter residents said they hope the painting they made last week will raise awareness about what it means to be homeless and inspire people to to help.

"It would be nice if more and more people would notice [homeless people]," said Bruce, who asked that his last name not be included in this story. "And know what kind of help people need.

"There's a lot of different reasons people are homeless," he said.

Bruce said he was living with his mother until she died and had lost his job when he came to the shelter a year and three months ago.

"I didn't have any way to pay anything," he said.

Since coming to the shelter, he has worked with Lazarus Caucus volunteers to find an apartment. He found one in Baltimore City and will move in next month.

"It's been good," he said of his experience at the shelter. "They give you a place to sleep, a place to eat. They help you get back on your feet."

Wednesday, he used a blend of purple and white to paint a three-peaked mountain range on the group canvas.

"It's just a peaceful place, a peaceful, serene place," Bruce said.

"Me and my mom used to watch [painter] Bob Ross all the time," he said on the popular television painting instructor known for his afro and cheerful outlook. "I just wanted to put something down that we watched a lot."

Eddie Tucker, 31, said he arrived at the shelter on May 10 after being evicted from his Towson apartment.

He said the shelter has helped him get back on his feet and he enjoyed contributing to the group painting.

"I painted a house with a chimney and windows," Tucker said. "Just whatever came in my mind."

He thinks the painting's tour of Catonsville will aid not only the shelter, but for general awareness about homelessness.

"[If] They see our painting, that will help big time," Tucker said.

"Living on the streets is no fun," he said. "I don't want to go back in that position."

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