Relatives ask 'Why?' in homeless man's death


As friends and family gathered in Baltimore yesterday to remember the troubled life of William H. Black Jr., they could not help feeling perplexed at how the homeless man could lie dying on a New York City sidewalk, across the street from a hospital emergency room.

"No matter who you are, or what your status in life is, you deserve help," said Mr. Black's brother, Armstead Black, 51.

"When someone reaches out for help and says, 'Save me,' and they still can't get help, that's not right," said another brother, 49-year-old Wayne Black.

Any of us could be in William Black's shoes, Armstead Black, general manager of the Gage World Class Men's Store on West Baltimore Street, said after an hourlong memorial service.

"We all could fall from grace. We all could be there," he said.

William Black, 55, who moved to Baltimore as a youngster, attended Carver Vocational-Technical High School, and moved to New York City in 1978, was found dead Tuesday lying on the sidewalk across the street from New York's St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center. Fellow homeless people who had befriended him and collected cans and bottles with him on the streets say they tried repeatedly to get the sick man help -- both from hospital staff and from emergency crews.

An ambulance crew said William Black refused help at one point in the hours before his death, according to an article in the New York Times yesterday.

The details of William Black's death are still in question, family members said.

While awaiting an autopsy report by authorities in New York, the family has hired a Baltimore lawyer in an attempt to determine how Mr. Black died and whether he could have been helped, Armstead Black said.

His life on the streets, unemployed and drinking too much, was painful enough, relatives said. But the thought that Mr. Black needed help -- and the thought that no one could or would VTC provide it -- compounds their pain, they said.

William Black, who was divorced, had not kept in touch with his family in recent years, despite his relatives' attempts to help him.

"He was a very proud individual," Armstead Black said.

William Black's only child, Lisa Black Mallette, 26, could not attend the memorial service because she was so saddened by his death, Armstead Black said. Her father had wanted badly to show her that he could pull himself together, he said.

William Black's mother, Ella Black Clanton of Baltimore, wrote a verse for the memorial service, which was attended by about 75 people.

Mrs. Clanton wrote: "If we had seen you to the last, And held your dying hand . . . We would not feel so bad. We did not know the pain you had. We did not see you die. We only know you went away and did not say goodbye."

Inside the Leroy O. Dyett and Son funeral home on Liberty Heights Avenue, Devore Marshall, a family friend, sang, "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," and relatives hugged and sobbed.

"They may never be able to put the pieces together," the Rev. Harold Kidd, pastor of Cherry Hill Presbyterian Church in Baltimore's Cherry Hill section, said of the family's search for answers. "They've got to remember the good in his life."

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