ON THE NIGHT after Christmas, they stood in the iron cold outside the Grace and Hope Mission with the lights and the dancing ladies of The Block just around the corner. When the mission doors opened at 7 p.m., a man handed out hymnbooks as a kind of entrance pass. The mission lady at the microphone sang "O Come, All Ye Faithful." It sounded like a postscript reminder of a gentler hour.
She sang sweetly and off-key. About 60 people sat around the little mission, most of them still wearing their overcoats and woolen hats though they were finally, blessedly warm inside, and as they chimed in, their singing filled the room with something approximating joy.
A fellow named Greg Maddox, 46, sat in the back row and said he'd been on the street for the past two years. He smiled shyly and slipped half a banana into a coat pocket. He said he slept outside one of the downtown office buildings and pointed to a few other guys. They hung together. He said they slept under "seven or eight blankets, so it's not so bad, believe me." The cops came by the other night, they all said, when the temperature dropped like a guillotine coming down.
"And they hassled you?" a guy asked.
"No," said Maddox, "they went into their trunk and gave us jackets to make sure we were warm."
Daryl Parker, 47, wearing a bandanna on his head, nodded confirmation. He was there. He said he's been homeless for 15 years.
"Fifteen," somebody exclaimed.
"On and off," said Parker, not wanting it to sound like a boast.
Another guy, first name John, 25, was with Maddox and Parker when the cops gave them jackets. John doesn't want his last name in the newspaper because he's currently working and fears his employer might terminate him if he learned he was homeless.
He's a little different from the others, on the street only a few weeks. He sounded vaguely European but said he's up here from Texas. He said he sleeps on the street because the shelters "kick you out for petty rules. Once you're in, you have to stay in for the night. Well, I had clean laundry in the wash and needed to get it."
He sounds a variation on a theme. Those who reject the area's shelters and choose the awful streets talk about dangerous characters, about psychotic behavior, about people who haven't bathed for weeks at a time. Easier to spend the darkness in a doorway, or an abandoned house, or atop a grate with steam coming through an opening.
There is no exact count of homeless in Baltimore, but there are estimates of about 3,000. Last week, on Homeless Persons Memorial Day, there were services for 80 homeless who died this year. Across Maryland, state officials estimate 46,000 people were homeless between the summers of 2002 and 2003. Many have histories of substance abuse. Many have mental illness. Many more lost their jobs, and then their homes.
And each evening, scores of people from this community of outcasts come to the Grace and Hope Mission, 4 S. Gay St., for 90 minutes of prayer and singing, and a meal, before heading back into the cold. The mission holds about a hundred little auditorium chairs. There's a painting of Christ on a front wall, a few stained-glass windows, and a U.S. flag in a corner.
And there are the Carlson sisters, who have run the place for the past two-thirds of a century. Ruth is 85; Gunhild, 83. There are Grace and Hope missions in eight cities. The Carlsons grew up in Reading, Pa., "felt the call of God" in their teens at the mission there, and brought their devotion to Baltimore 66 years ago.
"I guess we'll stay the rest of our lives," says Ruth, smiling gently. She and her sister live upstairs. On this night after Christmas, they'll hand out hot dogs, cake, tangerines, warm drinks, hygiene kits and socks. On Christmas Eve, they gave out wool caps.
"They're always glad for socks and caps," says Ruth.
The food and clothing come partly from government agencies, partly from institutions, partly from private donations.
"There was a 10-year-old boy," says Gunhild, "who came to one of our missions a few years back" - it was on Greene Street, since closed down - "who bought 34 throws, at $4.88 apiece, and gave them out. A man from Pennsylvania brought 17 blankets here. Some people from Annapolis brought clothes and blankets. See those poinsettias?"
She points to flowers at the front of the room, near the mission lady at the microphone who's now leading a rendition of "Silent Night." The flowers, says Gunhild, were donated by a man "just out of the service" who came to Grace and Hope 15 years ago, and found help, and never forgot them. He sends the flowers every year.
It's a nice touch on a dreadful night. The temperature has dipped into the teens. The mission lady at the microphone asks if anyone has a favorite song. They settle on "Joy to the World." Nobody stops to note the irony. There's comfort in the familiar words, and in the sound of many voices joined together.
In the back row now, Greg Maddox says he and Daryl Parker and their friend John spent Christmas Day "going around to some churches. They were giving out hats and gloves. The stuff I needed, they had already gave away. I needed some boots. But the ladies were very nice to us. People want to help the homeless at Christmas. You see kindness for a few days there."
But this was the night after Christmas. And the night was ferociously cold, and the winter is only beginning.