Ex-panhandler pursues new kind of change He shows others path to life off the streets


Rick Mosley, 20 months sober, returns every day to the nadir of his life, to the downtown streets where he once spent his time cadging spare change for bottles of cheap wine. Now he visits the panhandlers he left behind, offering them information about drug and alcohol treatment, tips on social services, sometimes just blankets and sandwiches.

The one thing he won't give them is change.

"They still ask me," he said with a grin. "Even though they know me, they still ask."

But Mr. Mosley, an inept panhandler in his day, believes that the quarters and dollars pressed on panhandlers add up to a bad deal for everyone. People begin avoiding downtown, he says, while the panhandlers stay on the streets, going one more day without help.

As human resources coordinator for Downtown Partnership Inc., Mr. Mosley, 41, is part of a two-prong approach developed by merchants and those who work with the homeless. While he reaches out to the city's panhandlers -- and occasionally chides those who give to them -- a media campaign starting next week will encourage the well-intentioned to put money in special cash boxes at downtown businesses.

The Baltimore Community Foundation, which has contributed $5,000 to the fund, will distribute the money. Although no specific groups have been selected as recipients, the coalition behind the group, Partnership in Action, has agreed to make substance-abuse programs a top priority.

Mr. Mosley acknowledges that the lack of treatment programs is a large part of the problem. Every treatment center he knows has a waiting list, he said, and many of the panhandlers lost their medical insurance a year ago, when the state dropped its coverage for disabled adults.

But he also meets people, with apartments and Social Security checks, who tell him they have no intention of giving up the easy income. He remembers his seven trips to a detoxification center. His job, he figures, is to find the people ready to make a similar trip, back to sobriety and the working world.

"I really believe everyone wants to come off the streets," he said. "They tell themselves they enjoy it, but they really just tolerate it. Even now, I don't run across any folks saying, 'This is the life.' "

He does, however, run across his former colleagues around Lexington Market, where he once worked in a panhandling "crew" -- staking out three or four corners, then splitting up their take at the end of the day.

"They fired me," Mr. Mosley said. "I wasn't very good at it."

It wasn't the first job Mr. Mosley had lost. His resume includes stints at several city jobs, the post office and, in Vietnam, two years as an Army drill sergeant. Drinking began to overtake him in the early 1980s, when he lost a job in the recession, and by the late 1980s, he was bouncing on and off the streets.

On his seventh trip through a Veterans Administration detoxification program, Mr. Mosley met Timothy T. Williams of the South Baltimore Homeless Shelter Inc., who was visiting another patient. They began talking, and Mr. Mosley later asked him for a job at the shelter.

He started working about 12 hours a week, but quickly moved into a full-time position. Now on loan to the Downtown Partnership, which pays a portion of his $15,000 annual salary, Mr. Mosley often meets men he knew at the shelter.

Yesterday, for example, one of the partnership's public safety guides told Mr. Mosley that Tony, working the corner of Lombard and Howard streets, wanted to talk to him. It turned out they knew each other from the shelter, which gave Mr. Mosley some leverage in trying to persuade Tony to seek treatment through a veterans hospital in Cecil County.

"He's just the perfect person for this job," said Mr. Williams, who recommended Mr. Mosley for the position. "He can talk effectively -- and I underscore the word effectively -- to all the different people involved in this, the entrepreneurial panhandler, well as the one who's just lost."

Mr. Mosley sat on a low wall with Tony, meeting his eyes, leaning toward him as he told of his recent woes: an attempt to go straight, derailed by a girlfriend who was still using drugs, put him back on the streets. Tony -- he uses just one name so his family won't know what he's doing -- receives no public assistance, and makes perhaps $15 a day. He recalled with relish how a man recently handed him a $100 bill, which bought a couple of nights in a North Avenue motel. That was a week ago, the money is long gone.

Will Tony show up Friday, when a van is scheduled to pick him up and take him to the hospital? "He might because he knows me, knows I'm going to raise hell with him," Mr. Mosley said. "That might not be the best reason, but it's a start."

At least Tony was receptive to Mr. Mosley's soft-voiced pitch and gave him the information he needed to fill out an admission form.

Near the Holocaust Memorial, brothers Charles and Price put up more resistance -- especially 51-year-old Charles, who kept asking Mr. Mosley for change.

"I'm not ready yet," he said, when Mr. Mosley pressed the issue of treatment. "Not ready yet."

And on top of the hill next to the memorial, Vanessa refused to talk to Mr. Mosley at all. Schizophrenic, Vanessa keeps to herself and declines almost all help, Mr. Mosley said.

In fact, Mr. Mosley said many of the people he talks to on a daily basis are not panhandlers, but mentally ill street people. One woman, usually found on Charles Street, never asks for money, yet people still give her dollar bills.

"Last time I saw someone do that, I said to him, 'Why'd you do that? I've been talking to this lady two months, trying to get some help. That's not helping, what you did,' " he recalled.

Lauren Siegel, a spokeswoman for City Advocates in Solidarity with the Homeless, disagrees with the partnership's anti-panhandling approach. Her group, which this summer introduced the Polite Panhandling Campaign, believes that panhandlers are as likely to buy food as they are to buy alcohol or drugs. Diverting the spare change won't make a difference, she said.

"I'm sure the Baltimore Community Foundation will do good things with the money, but I don't think 50 cents here and there . . . will create systemic change," she said.

Laurie Schwartz, president of the Downtown Partnership, counters: "There's a real sense of cycle, and the person who's giving is part of the cycle. The public may not be helping [by giving to panhandlers]."

Mr. Mosley believes that he is making a change, like water dripping on a rock -- slowly, almost imperceptibly. So far, he has spoken to more than 60 panhandlers; only a few will give him their full names, or talk about services. One even asked Mr. Mosley to come back another day, because business was too brisk for him to stop and talk.

But the hardest part, he says, is confronting the person he used to be. He doesn't like remembering the man who stood outside Lexington Market, trying not to laugh at the people who pitied him.

"My biggest fear was coming back out on the street and wondering if I was going to end up on the streets again," he said. "People focus a lot on the success of recovery. But there's a lot of pain in it, too. The biggest difficulty I have is drawing that line between empathy and sympathy."

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