As the bells at Zion Lutheran Church chimed at 5 p.m. yesterday, once for each of the 80 homeless people who died in Baltimore this year, few of those who passed by the church near City Hall paused to notice.
And so it was that those for whom the bells tolled -- men and women who were killed on the street or died in abandoned houses -- were ignored in death much as they were in life.
For those who organized Baltimore's annual Homeless Persons' Memorial Day, a national event held every year on the winter solstice, it was a somber reminder of how much work remains to be done.
Bells were also rung at several other Baltimore churches and the names of the dead were read aloud on WYPR radio in Baltimore.
"Life on the streets can quickly shift to death on the streets," said Jeff Singer, president and chief executive officer of Health Care for the Homeless Inc., which provides medical aid to the homeless in Baltimore. "Only by putting an end to homelessness itself can we stop the untimely deaths of our homeless neighbors."
A coalition of service providers met last week in Baltimore to begin work on a statewide plan to end the plight of the homeless in the next decade. A city plan is in the works as well.
Those involved in the planning say that without a shift in public policies on health care, affordable housing and minimum wage, the plans will have little chance of succeeding.
"We have a range of public service problems that we have to address before we can end homelessness," Singer said.
Until then, state and city officials say, they will continue to rely on federal funds to help fund shelters and soup kitchens. The state was recently awarded $2 million from the Federal Emergency Preparedness and Response Agency to aid the homeless next year.
Social services agencies in more than 2,500 cities and counties across the nation received $153 million as part of the funding package.
There is no exact count of homeless people in Baltimore, but Singer pegs the total at about 3,000.
Some say there are many more people who are technically homeless because they have no permanent address and are living in squalid, cramped apartments and houses.
State officials estimate that statewide, 46,000 people were homeless from July 1, 2002, to June 30, 2003.
Wayne Richardson, who was homeless off and on for 10 years until recently, recalled yesterday how he wound up on the streets.
"The loss of my mother made me angry, and people tried to help me but I couldn't see it," he said. "I stayed out on the streets. It's lonely out there. When I did try to reach out, it seemed like everyone shut the door in my face."
Richardson, who said he is a recovering drug addict who also suffers from mental illness, is representative of about half the people who visit Health Care for the Homeless, Singer said.
The other half, contrary to public perception, are people who lost their homes because of unemployment, a family death or some other event. Some have been forced out of public housing because of cutbacks.
Sharon Doughney of Baltimore said she first participated in the memorial event in 2002 after the death of her 36-year-old sister, Kelly Rose Marie Doughney.
She said that afterward, she looked for ways to learn more about her sister's life on the streets, volunteering at soup kitchens where she met some of her sister's friends. Those encounters, she said, helped her to heal.
"She was still the person I knew her to be even if she didn't have a roof over her head," Sharon Doughney said.
Singer, who knew Kelly Doughney and a handful of people on the 2004 list, said the memorial is a bittersweet event for him because it reminds him of the hurdles that still exist for the homeless.
"In some ways, it is this horrible reminder of the public policy that keeps creating homelessness before we can stop it," he said. "We must redouble our efforts in that regard."
These people who died this year were known by social workers in Baltimore to have been homeless at some point in their lives. Some of them were deemed homeless after police and the state medical examiner's office could find no address for them.
Carol Dana Adcock
Sara Nicole Britt
Henry- Joseph K.
Billy Joe Purdue
John Lewis Shelia
Sandra E. Wilson
William "Woody" Woodson
Source: Health Care for the Homeless and State Medical Examiner.