In burial, homeless man finally gets resting place


In his last two weeks on Earth, Gene Rhodus' home was 55-gallon cardboard drum behind a Timonium chemical company.

With no car and no other place to live, he became a familiar sight to those working in the offices and warehouses nearby.

"Everyone felt sorry for him. People would see him out there and give him money and food," said Maria Hand, an employee at Sterling Chemical Co., 56 W. Timonium Road. Near there, on the morning of Dec. 4, Mr. Rhodus was found dead of a heart attack. He was 50.

He will be remembered tomorrow at a 4 p.m. memorial service on the grounds of Sterling Chemical planned by the Baltimore County Coalition for the Homeless to highlight the problems of homelessness.

A graduate of City College, Mr. Rhodus had been married, reared two sons, owned a home in Carney and worked 28 years at Carr Lowery Glass Co., where he completed a two-year apprenticeship, was promoted and earned $10.46 an hour as a machine operator.

But family members say Mr. Rhodus slipped into a downward spiral about 10 years ago, when alcohol took control of him and never let go.

After he failed twice to respond to in-patient counseling and treatment for alcoholism provided by his employer, he was fired by Carr Loweryon Sept. 21, 1987.

He moved in with his mother and eventually began working on a temporary basis with BSI Temporaries, a company that hired laborers at $5 an hour. A company spokesman said Mr. Rhodus && most likely worked at the Noxell Corp., making cosmetics at a site not far from where his body was found.

"He liked the temporary work arrangement because he could just show up when he wanted and there was no pressure," said Marilyn Wenrich, one of his two sisters.

But living with his mother, who was in her 80s, did not work out.

"All Mom asked was that he take a bath once in a while and that he try to stop drinking," said Jerry Rhodus, his brother. "But Gene wanted to live by his own rules."

Mr. Rhodus left his mother's house about two years ago for a life in the streets. Occasionally he stayed at shelters in Baltimore, but he didn't like them.

"He was always worried about getting robbed there," his sister recalled.

Around Thanksgiving, he told his family he was leaving for Florida and boarded a bus with $200 in his pocket.

He called family members a week later, telling them he was broke and living in a Jacksonville, Fla., mission. The family forwarded money to him and he returned to the area, hanging around the Trailways bus station in Baltimore until he drank rubbing alcohol and was taken to University Hospital for treatment.

When he was discharged, his brother picked him up at the hospital and tried unsuccessfully to get him to see a counselor. "The whole family at one time or another tried to help out Gene," the brother said.

Added his sister, "He had all the help he could ever need, and all he had to do was ask for it. But he never really asked."

Mr. Rhodus' marriage ended in divorce. His grown sons reside in Colorado and Arkansas.

Volunteers, social workers and counselors who work with the homeless say that Mr. Rhodus' case points out the problems of working with the homeless. Some have drug or alcohol problems. Some are mentally ill. Most homeless people have other, deeply rooted problems in their lives that make it difficult for families to counsel and help them.

"They wear their families out," said Maureen Robinson, resources coordinator for the Baltimore County Department of Social Services.

Advocates for the homeless also see Mr. Rhodus' death as a reminder that homelessness is not limited to Baltimore but has spread to suburban communities.

In the 12-month period ending last June 30, Baltimore County sheltered 1,605 men, women and children, a dramatic increase over previous years, Ms. Robinson said. Numbers for previous years did not include men, making comparisons with past figures difficult, she said.

"It's a combination of factors -- the economy, the fact that there aren't many jobs out there for people, and the lack of affordable housing," she said.

In recent weeks, county officials have announced a number of initiatives to help the homeless, including the Jan. 23 opening of Nehemiah House, a two-story house in Rosedale for 25 homeless men.

Homeless women and families also are sheltered at the two NTC Eleanor B. Corner houses operated by the YWCA in Reisterstown and Arbutus, at the Hearth House in Lansdowne, the Family Crisis Center in Dundalk and at area motels, Ms. Robinson said.

But those who work with the homeless fear that may not be enough.

"There's just been an explosion of homelessness. I've never seen it like this," said Nancy Stanton, who has been working with the homeless for 20 years with the non-profit Community Assistance Network. "There used to be a feeling that there were

resources to help these people. Now, it seems there's a sense of hopelessness."

Oscar Webb, a former Army medic who suffers from arthritis, skin ailments and blindness in one eye, has been homeless since he left the basement of his nephew's Catonsville house two years ago because he was crowding the family.

A great-grandfather, Mr. Webb, 58, went to work at age 16 cleaning cars at City Oldsmobile on Edmondson Avenue. He had to leave his last job, buffing cars at a Catonsville car wash, about two years ago because of health problems.

He now lives on a monthly $205 public assistance check and $90 in food stamps. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Baltimore County is $527 a month, according to county statistics.

For the past three weeks, he has been staying at the Westgate Motel on U.S. 40 in Catonsville under a program where roughly 25 beds are reserved as temporary shelter for homeless men. Before that, Mr. Webb slept in a corner store in Catonsville, a small, one-story shack with no running water or heat.

"You bet it's hard," he said. "It gets hard as nails when you get old."

Advocates for the homeless say cases like Mr. Webb's are the reason for the memorial service -- to raise awareness abut the problem and prevent more people from dying.

"While homelessness is not as visible in the county as it might be in Baltimore City, it's there," said Arnold Shapiro, coalition president.

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