When newcomers land in Baltimore, they typically get glossy brochures playing up the town at its crab-and-baseball best.
When the bus left Charles Shamwell at the Greyhound terminal, the first thing he got was a wallet-size card printed in black and white that detailed homeless services in the area.
Three months later, he believes the "street card" he picked up at an emergency shelter was one of the best introductions to the city he could have received.
"It was a godsend," says Mr. Shamwell, 35, a recovering drug addict. "It helped me find food, work and a place to live."
The street card was his ticket off the streets, he says.
Detractors, though, say these cards do more to ease the conscience of those handing them out than to improve the quality of life for the needy.
D8 Hailed by merchants as a way to curb panhandling and
by homeless advocates as a way to educate, street cards and vouchers for services are becoming an increasingly popular alternative to giving money to the homeless.
But critics say these cards and vouchers are ineffectual among a population that's often mentally ill, illiterate or addicted to drugs or alcohol. They say the cards illustrate the public's growing hostility toward the homeless.
Maria Foscarinis, director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in Washington, says that street cards dehumanize an already demeaning situation.
"The street cards give the impression that help is out there," she says, "[and that] the problem is people are not looking for it. But that's not true. What is true is that even emergency services are grossly oversubscribed."
But Sidney Gardner, director of Christopher Place, a men's shelter in East Baltimore, is a believer. He keeps a stack of cards on his desk and sometimes hands out a dozen a day.
"It's time for tough love," he says. "That's what these street cards are. . . . I see these people day in and day out. I've given them the dollars, the quarters, the dimes. It hasn't helped."
For the last three years, Baltimore has produced cards offering information about shelters, soup kitchens and transportation through the Mayor's Office of Homeless Services. This year alone, some 120,000 will be distributed to homeless service providers, police, schools and hospital emergency rooms.
The cards also are turning up in more stores. As part of a current public education campaign about the homeless, the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore Inc. has placed 55 contribution boxes with stacks of street cards at retailers around the city. By March, they expect to have 200 boxes in place, says Laurie Schwartz, president of the partnership.
"Many people fail to realize that the money they give on the street may actually hurt people," she says. "It could help feed an addiction."
Although figures have not yet been tallied for 1994, $600 was collected in November and December, the first two months of the campaign last year. The money will go toward substance-abuse treatment for the homeless.
But the need for help continues to outpace what's available. In a survey of 26 cities, the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that the demand for food among the homeless increased 13 percent and the demand for shelter rose 10 percent last year.
In Maryland, the number of people served in shelter programs increased more than 25 percent during the last five years. Nearly 50,000 people were served in 1992, the latest figures available, according to the Maryland Department of Resources.
The idea to issue a Baltimore street card came about after an employee of Catholic Charities saw a similar street card in New York. Following the city's lead, Baltimore County began producing a street card through the library system, and several other counties in the state are either considering or have created their own cards.
The cost is minimal. The city spends less than $1,000 annually to print and distribute the cards, according to Joanne Selinske, director of the Mayor's Office of Homeless Services.
Somewhat akin to the street cards are vouchers, which, like food stamps, are redeemable for meals or services at participating stores.
One of the most successful -- and most imitated -- programs is Berkeley Cares, a nonprofit voucher organization founded in 1991. Donations allow the group to underwrite the cost of producing 25-cent vouchers, which are sold to the public at more than 90 stores and agencies throughout the Berkeley, Calif., area. The public then gives vouchers instead of money to those in need. Recipients can redeem the vouchers at any one of 23 participating shops, laundromats or transportation agencies for anything except alcohol or tobacco. Every two weeks, administrators collect the vouchers and write checks to participating businesses.
Berkeley Cares, which has sold more than 250,000 vouchers, has a 70 percent redemption rate. Many other cities have reportedly lower figures.
Two years ago, Downtown Partnership studied the voucher system, but not enough merchants were willing to cooperate to make it feasible, says Ms. Schwartz.
Although the Helping Up Mission, a men's shelter in EasBaltimore, began a voucher program six months ago, their vouchers function more as advertisements. Distributed to area businesses and homeless agencies, these vouchers serve as coupons for what's already essentially free: lodging and meals at the mission. On a typical night, four of the 200 men the mission can accommodate arrive with a voucher, says Chuck Serio, director of development there.
Charles Shamwell, who has stayed at the mission, applauds the idea of vouchers and cards.
A Virginia native who has lived in dozens of cities, he says he wound up homeless after his wife's murder nine years ago. He got addicted to drugs and lost his home, he says.
"I'd given up on myself," he says. "To me, it was a way to commit suicide."
But when he ran out of money in Baltimore, the card helped him find his way around an unfamiliar place. It led him to Beans and Bread on South Bond Street for food, to Health Care for the Homeless on Park Avenue for a physical and to Christopher Place on East Eager Street, where he practiced his math, wrote a new resume and volunteered at the front desk.
When Mike McLellan began living on the street in 1986, these cards -- and many of these services -- didn't exist. He's not sure they would have helped him much anyway.
"Like most of the guys, I was panhandling for drugs and drink. Food was the last thing on my mind," says Mr. McLellan, 37, who now lives in West Baltimore. While he believes the cards are valuable, he never received one. And many homeless men and women he knows can't put the information to use, he says.
"A lot of people out there can't read or speak," he says. "That's the limitation of these things."
He also says that passers-by are often indifferent when they hand the homeless these cards.
You can't just walk up to a person and just say, 'Here. I can't
give you no money, so take this' and then shove a card at them. The person giving out the cards should know something about them," he says.
Ms. Schwartz has received mixed reaction to the cards she's given out. The first time, a homeless person accepted one and
said, 'Thank you.' The second time, the card was refused.
For Curtis Pope, the owner of Gordon-Pope Ltd., a new cafe on North Charles Street, the cards and donation boxes are a welcome alternative.
"You give money and money to the homeless, but they're still on the street," he says. "It's a black hole. I offered two or three of them jobs. They'd show up for a day and then disappear. What we decided to do was use this [box] as our way of helping."
Last week, Mr. Shamwell's resume helped him land a job as a live-in custodian and groundskeeper at a crisis center in Northeast Baltimore. But even now, he knows the direction of his life isn't assured.
"You reach a point where you know you need change," he says. "There's still a lot of adversity I have to deal with, but I'm trying to look at things positively."
One of the small things that helps him do that is the street card. He still keeps the one he received when he came to town. He also carries another to give out to homeless men or women he may meet.
"I wouldn't give a homeless person money now," he says, holding a card in his hand. "This can do more for somebody than $10."