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$2 handout little help to homeless


The South Baltimore Station homeless shelter aims to do more than give 40 men a warm meal and a bed at night. It also tries to get men to address the causes of their homelessness and to change their lives.

Timothy T. Williams, 43, a former lawyer and bureaucrat, became executive director of the shelter in 1990. He says he finds contentment in the work despite the heartbreak of dealing with men whose problems often seem intractable. The shelter, housed in a former city firehouse at 140 W. West St., had its beginnings six years ago. Two neighborhood women, Jaye Burtnick and Gloria DeBarry, created a refuge from the winter weather for the street people of the Cross Street market area. The first shelter was the floor of Ms. DeBarry's office.

By November 1991, the shelter had moved to its present quarters, which the nonprofit South Baltimore Homeless Shelter Inc. leases from the city for $1 a year. The shelter has a $285,000 annual budget (one-quarter from government funds) and nine paid staff members, but volunteers still are central to the effort.

QUESTION: Should citizens give money to men who panhandle or who carry cardboard signs that say, "Homeless. Will Work for Food"?

ANSWER: No. The money is better invested in the work being done by a service organization that you have explored yourself. Put your money there instead of in the pocket of the man who's on the street generally because he is in the throes of addiction or a mental health problem. The money will be used to continue his powerful spiral down and out.

Q: But not giving makes people feel guilty.

A: Sure. That's why panhandling works. When the guilt level rises to the point of action, the hand goes into the pocket, a couple dollars come out and the man has succeeded in trading on the guilt we all feel because our society doesn't have the stomach to take care of people who are unappealing to us.

Q: What is the goal of South Baltimore Station?

A: Our goal is to give men an excellent opportunity to get themselves back on their feet. Nothing happens without our residents doing the work for themselves. We've learned that it's only through our residents addressing the causes of their homelessness -- which in most cases involve alcoholism, drug addiction or mental illness -- that anything positive happens for them. If they don't do it, it is virtually ineffective.

Instead of homeless, I like to call these people "disconnected." If you think of our men as having plugs to connect to community, family, job and other resources, they have pulled all their plugs. They have to do the hardest work that anybody can do: Face head-on the demons that have driven them here.

We provide an extended family for them.

Q: What are the rules at SBS?

A: This is absolutely an alcohol-and drug-free place. We test aggressively by urine sample. If residents have used, they need to leave immediately. They also need to do chores; save 75 percent of any income they have; attend in-house support group meetings, and contribute to the positive atmosphere here. The length of stay is open-ended, as long as it is productive. Forty percent quit within the first two weeks because the program is more than they're willing to do or can do.

Our men are mostly between 25 and 45. Virtually all have had good jobs. With the gradual deterioration of their lives, they have lost those good jobs but they are capable people. It's a myth to think that homeless men can't do anything but wander the streets.

Q: A new book, 'A Nation in Denial: The Truth About Homelessness," argues that the main problems facing the homeless are not poverty and the lack of affordable housing but alcoholism, drug addiction and mental illness. Do you agree?

A: Yes. Absolutely. About 90 percent of our men are coping with an addiction, including alcohol, and the other 10 percent are here for reasons of mental illness. Those temporarily out on the street for purely economic reasons are a rarity. We need affordable treatment for people plagued by addiction and mental illness. It's so obvious that even if we could provide men with a job and a place to live, neither would last because the men's fundamental problem hadn't been addressed.

Q: What is a typical day at SBS?

A: Lights are on at 6 a.m. Breakfast is at 7. Fifteen men a day do chores after breakfast. About 25 to 30 percent are employed. Others go out to educational programs, look for employment or are engaged in mental health therapy. They all have something gainful to do. They come back at 5 p.m.

Dinner is at 7. Each night there are support group or education meetings -- Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous. That dedication to each other -- people who have shared pain supporting each other -- seems to work best.

Q: What is your success rate?

A: About 10 to 15 percent of our residents leave here as success stories. If they leave significantly improved over the way they entered, that's a success. Most often, the men who succeed have been here the longest, eight months on average, are typically older and have gone through a series of efforts to reverse their circumstances.

Q: Don't you get discouraged by the low success rate?

A: We don't feel that way at all. It's just the opposite. Men can change, they can make their lives better by being here. We've seen it.

Q: Might not Americans conclude that it's not worth the effort to help the homeless?

A: They may well say that. Our society views men who are not carrying their own weight as rejects who basically are not worth the effort. It shouldn't be that way. It's not right to close the book on a man who is 30 years old because he's an alcoholic.

Something I've learned in this job is there's a very deep, wide resource in our society of people who want to help others.

Q: What is the most important thing government can do to combat homelessness?

A: It can support relatively small community efforts. I don't think the government ought to provide the services directly.

Q: What can concerned citizens do to help the homeless?

A: Look at their own community's needs and take action. If their communities don't have problems like this, they should look to those that do. The bare minimum is to provide shelter from harsh weather and food. There are a thousand ways to do it. This is one.

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