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Poor converge, show the war on poverty isn't over


THEY CAME in cold and fresh from the shelters and the social welfare agencies. Some on foot, some by bus, many clutching shopping bags stuffed with clothing, they migrated through the big business lanes of downtown Baltimore and funnelled into the Pratt Street entrance of the Convention Center, down the grand staircase, past the water fountains and into the cavernous, concrete heart of the city's tourism complex. Where usually are found white-collar professionals with briefcases and name tags were close to 3,000 of Baltimore's poor. Hundreds had spent the night before in shelters.

Word of the nonprofit Center for Poverty Solutions' third annual "Opportunity Fair" trickled into the street from agencies that serve Baltimore's poor. By 10 o'clock yesterday morning, there was a steady stream of men and women into the Convention Center to take advantage of free advice and information from an array of social welfare groups and government agencies, or to get a free haircut, or a hot turkey dinner, or a new set of clothes.

The clothes drew the biggest crowd.

In a large section of the convention center floor, the St. Vincent de Paul Society set up tables and stacked them with coats, shirts, pants, socks, underwear, belts, hats and gloves. Lots of gloves. Mild winters in 1998 and 1997 left big overstocks at a couple of different apparel companies; St. Vincent de Paul got 15,000 pairs. And the society received dozens of insulated, nylon coats, too. "They might have a sleeve that's attached in a crooked way, or they might be missing some stitches," says Christopher Benzing, director of St. Vincent's furniture and clothing bank. "They're irregulars, but they're good coats."

The line grew long in a matter of minutes -- mostly middle-aged men and women looking for something new to wear, and concerned that all the good stuff would be gone before their turn. (Last year, Fila donated 400 pairs of athletic shoes -- a generous amount but certainly not enough for everyone, and there was a big fuss on the floor.)

This year, clothes selection was orderly.

"Everyone gets a ticket for clothes when they come in, and they get to take six items from the clothing tables, but only one of each item," says Benzing. "They get some toiletries on the way out, too."

Eddie Moore, 44 years old and climbing out of drug addiction, got a coat and some underwear, a new shirt and a pair of pants. He says he starts training to be a nursing assistant in two weeks. Larry Price, who works part-time as a brick mason's helper, took what Moore did -- plus underwear for his wife.

Price said he'll wear the new khakis to work when he gets called back.

"Tearing down woods and putting up houses in Cockeysville," he says, when I ask where he'd worked last. "It's slower now because of the weather."

Without prodding, Price offered commentary on poverty and government.

"It's good to know you got people that cares about others," he said, clutching the clothes to his chest. "Once everything was politics, you know. Maybe the politics, maybe they do have something to do with helping people nowadays, but not as much as the Catholic people do."

You mean the charities?

"Yeah," he says. "If the politics really cared about homeless people, they could set up the beds right in here and let them sleep in here. If they can build this place, they can build houses for the homeless."

A lot of Americans believe the war on poverty has finally been won -- because of purported welfare reform and a robust economy. General lack of media and political attention might be another reason we enjoy this perception of poverty in decline. But our perception is skewed.

"One of the problems," said Rob Hess, president of the Center for Poverty Solutions, "is that the social service agencies do too good a job. We actually see fewer and fewer of the homeless. You hardly ever see -- even when the media is interested -- homeless women and children. What you see are homeless men sleeping on gutters, or panhandlers. And yet, women and children make up more than 50 percent of those who use shelters."

"This is the best economy perhaps in the nation's history," said Ralph Moore, also of the CPS. "Why can't we share some of that? Some have too little and some have too much. We don't have a system that asks, 'How much is too little and how much is too much?' Bill Gates -- I love the guy. But a $60 million house? St. Ambrose [Housing Aid Center] could renovate between 800 and 900 houses for that money."

Right. What this country needs is a maximum wage.

Moore looked across the big room of tables set up for yesterday's turkey dinner -- and not with joy. "I look forward to the day when we don't do this anymore," he said. "The problem is our acceptance of this system."

It's a system in which many of our fellow Americans who work can't afford life's basics. The 12 million workers earning the minimum wage make an average $10,700 a year -- $2,900 below the official poverty level for a family of three. (In September, the U.S. Senate had before it a proposal to increase the minimum wage by $1 an hour. Shot it down, 55-44.) In Maryland, it's estimated that more than 30 percent of people using soup kitchens have jobs. In Maryland, about 18 percent of the men and women in shelters on any given night actually go to work each day.

"The minimum wage is $5.15," says Rob Hess, president of the center. "The living wage in Maryland is between $7.80 and $11.50, depending on where you live. That's a huge gap. The last time the minimum wage and the living wage were about the same was 1980. In 1980, we had 60 soup kitchens, pantries and shelters in Maryland. Today, with that gap, we have 900 soup kitchens, pantries and shelters."

Pub Date: 1/13/99

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