WHAT is the going price for a homeless person these days? How much cash does it take to relocate large numbers of our untouchable caste without any excessive protest from the champions of the poor and downtrodden?
Would you pay to keep a homeless man from living in the alley behind your house, and, if so, how much? What if he were using the whole alley and you were asked to pool resources with your neighbors to come up with enough money to make it worth the man's while to set up day camp on someone else's block? Would your answer depend on the appearance, character or behavior of the man in question? What if it were not one but 10 homeless men or 100?
These seem to be the sorts of questions awaiting answers in downtown Baltimore, where Associated Catholic Charities is to decide the fate of Our Daily Bread, the city's largest and most prominent soup kitchen.
A source of concern
For many years, the soup kitchen, which serves about 900
people a day, has been a source of concern and consternation for neighboring residents, businesses, schools and civic agencies. Representatives of the Charles Street Association, Downtown Partnership and other business and civic groups blame the charitable operation for providing a magnet for vandals, thieves and muggers, whose presence has hurt the economy and image of downtown.
On the table in the talks between Associated Catholic Charities and area business and civic leaders is a proposal for the "relocation and upgrade" of Our Daily Bread, toward which the business crowd would presumably contribute a goodly sum of money. And what is the proposed site for the relocated soup kitchen? The new site would be in the 100 block of Park Avenue, about six blocks from its location on Cathedral Street. There, it would form part of the web of aid offered by Health Care for the Homeless, the Homeless Persons Representation Project, and other agencies serving the poor.
As a former manager of Our Daily Bread, I find all of this fascinating. In the 1980s, area merchants, librarians, school representatives and civic leaders expressed the same sorts of concerns over the effect they saw Our Daily Bread having on the area. Then, the soup kitchen served 500 people a day.
Then, as now, most of the men and women who came to Our Daily Bread were simply seeking respite, sustenance and hospitality in the midst of their struggle to survive each day with their health and dignity intact. Their poverty did not drive them to crime or depravity.
Then, as now, however, a fair number of people who patronized the soup kitchen saw the facility as a spot to grab a quick bite before resuming their daily routine of victimizing others.
Homeless advocates, including the director of Our Daily Bread, point to what they see as the larger picture that needs attention: a lack of jobs, housing and alcohol and drug treatment programs.
Perhaps that is the big picture and the proper object of our long-term concern.
To return to my original questions, it would seem that Associated Catholic Charities and the downtown businesses are dickering over the price of principle. How much money will the moneyed folk have to come up with before Catholic Charities agrees to move poor people to someone else's neighborhood? The soup kitchen's present site is a beautiful building, only 7 years old, which was erected in part as a result of another set of negotiations with area business leaders, who wanted a parking garage built on diocesan property more than they wanted to get rid of poor people. Now, the same interests are concerted in an effort to induce the church to serve the poor in a nicely appointed service ghetto tucked away from the main thoroughfares of the city's trade and tourism.
If the large number of poor served by Our Daily Bread really does present the problem that downtown merchants say, then the Downtown Partnership must be a pretty easy mark to go for a plan that calls for private money to be paid to move the problem just six blocks away. Surely, for 900 or more poor people on the prowl, this piddling distance is a mere bit of what the Germans called lebensraum -- extra space to operate in.
If, on the other hand, the poor served by Our Daily Bread are not a menace but the embodiment of Christ calling on the compassion of his church, then maybe Associated Catholic Charities ought to think twice before taking money to put the body out of sight. The devil is a great one for making the disintegration of integrity seem but a minor detail, lost in the fine print of such great accomplishments as, say, "relocation and upgrade."
Some homeless people do horrible, despicable deeds. They should be held responsible for their actions, as should unethical businessmen, crooked lawyers, corrupt politicians, unscrupulous social workers and avaricious churchmen, but they do not constitute even a large minority of their respective groups. Should Camden Yards be relocated to Carroll County because some fans are drunken boors who trash the neighborhood and give public vent to all manner of subhuman urges in their beer-fueled wanderings? Does the price of the ticket and a dozen cold ones also purchase a license, which Our Daily Bread guests cannot afford, to act in an uncivil manner?
Maybe church, business and civic leaders should be discussing a definition of common goals and ideals that is faithful to the
integrity of each side of the present debate. Are poverty and homelessness part of the reality of Baltimore? Of course. Should that aspect of our corporate existence be hidden away in some convenient corner of the city? We are fools to think it possible and worse to think it desirable. Can we move toward a greater recognition that the social context of poverty and the individual responsibility of poor people are not mutually exclusive notions? If we do, then perhaps we shall be able to see our way clear of urban problem management that entails shuffling the powerless here, there and everywhere for the right price.
Terrence S. Kenny was manager of Our Daily Bread for about two years in the mid-1980s.
Pub Date: 6/04/98