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How far off is real change?


BACK in the summer of '81, I took peanut butter sandwiches water, Coke and lots of ice to a man on a park bench near our house.

I had been slow to realize after consecutive days and nights that he had taken up residence.

The word "homeless" didn't come to mind. It then had a sort of foreign connotation; frequently it described refugees.

By the fifth day, a sense of urgency had set in. Temperatures broke the hundred-degree mark. In more than 20 phone calls to agencies and social workers (some of them acquaintances), I turned up no immediate help, no means of referral.

For his part, the thirsty, hungry man on the bench usually had his head in his hands. His weary, dull responses to my questions seemed rational. Two of my friends, though, suggested I was being conned.

His wasn't a new story. It added up to the old cliche: down on his luck. Isn't that the sum of being laid off and locked out by a spouse? He remained convinced that when she had said "out," she had meant it. Besides, she had already moved; he knew not where.

As with a developing Polaroid shot, the emerging reality of streelife gradually formed on my mind. How would this normally intelligent, young red-head -- apparently not an addict -- rock out of his despondency? Without a phone number or address, how was he to fill out a job application? And for how long would he lug his possessions with him 24 hours a day?

Inside a package of food, I included bus fare and a hand-drawn map. It gave directions to a shelter I'd heard about just that morning. I told him he could count on supper and a cot for the night.

Watching him for the last time as he left the park, I pondered his downward course. What lack of volition, what ineptitude had washed him into the culvert of despair?

Wasn't he able to set an alarm clock and get to work on time? Or maybe he was a know-it-all who had to have the last word, even with the boss. Or was he really one of the unlucky ones?

During the ensuing 10 years my view of homelessness has amplified; I've helped serve many hundreds of meals in shelters.

Looking around as I respond to the requests for coffee refills "with lots more sugar," I identify the clientele -- here some alcoholics, there a few mentally ill. I know many by name. I've poured their coffee, in some cases, for more than eight years.

Each year brings new throngs. More churches feed the hungry. More tables and chairs are jammed in. More women clients are noticeable and, increasingly, they are seen helping their children in the food lines.

Caseworkers who record the deterioration say they can hear all those hardship words in their sleep. They include: "rent increase," "layoff," "repo," "detox," "desertion," "second notice," "medical expense" and so on. To them, the homeless are passengers aboard the common carrier of poverty.

At eviction or other times of crisis, the community spotlight switches on. Then we can see them: layered figures lined up outside the soup kitchen or waiting to enter the warmth of the Pratt Library.

How far off is real change? Some say it depends on how long it will take to secure two scarce ingredients.

The first, obviously, is increased funding. The second, which may be even harder to come by, is the political courage to overhaul our impaired social system.

Without sufficient will, we are in a holding pattern. Our present, largely private and local mechanisms strain to provide what is critically needed: a day-to-day measure of survival.

It amounts to little more than what I offered the man in our park a decade ago.

Sally Gray writes from Baltimore.

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