Fatal fire leaves few traces of homeless man's life

THE BALTIMORE SUN

By official accounts, the man who died early yesterday in a South Baltimore fire was homeless.

But the unidentified man perished in his home, a makeshift dwelling constructed in a wooded area beneath the swirl of overpasses that connect two of Baltimore's busiest roads, Interstate 95 and Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

The man who lives in a neighboring plywood shanty spotted the fire about 5:30 a.m. and ran at least half a mile to the Exxon station in the 1800 block of Russell St., where he used a pay phone to call 911, fire officials said.

By the time firefighters arrived below the overpasses, flames had consumed the victim's shanty, said Kevin Cartwright, a Fire Department spokesman. Firefighters extinguished the embers but were unable to determine what material had been used to build the shack, only that it rested on cinder blocks.

Rescuers pulled the man's body from charred remains. His name remains unknown, and the cause of the fire has not been determined.

Clues to a life

The scene yesterday afternoon offered clues about how he lived. Slung across a improvised clothesline were a Pittsburgh Steelers jacket, an Express coat, two sweat shirts and a pair of sweat pants.

There were a few books, including Something in the Water by Charlotte MacLeod and All the Way Home by Wendy Corsi Staub. Others were too charred to identify.

Strewn about were an empty can of sour cream and onion dip, piles of trash, empty Coors Light cans and the blackened coils of a box spring. There was a pot for cooking and an orange-and-white cat standing guard atop a tree stump.

Kevin Lindamood, a spokesman for Healthcare for the Homeless, said that each day in Baltimore, about 3,000 people fit the federal government's definition of homeless, meaning they lack regular places to stay or live in a makeshift shelters similar to the one where the unidentified man died.

"It's not uncommon at all for people who feel shut out of the larger social systems for them to try to not be visible, not be present," Lindamood said. "I certainly think it would be more than a handful."

Baltimore Homeless Services Inc. and the Center for Poverty Solutions are taking a one-day homeless census this month to more accurately assess the homeless population.

In a survey conducted by Healthcare for the Homeless of people seeking assistance there, 46 percent reported being in shelters, 17 percent said they were living temporarily with others, 14 percent said they were living on the street, 13 percent indicated "other," and 10 percent marked "unknown."

Some homeless people shun or are turned away from shelters, Lindamood said. Many of them live in abandoned homes, but others find refuge in swaths of urban nature and construct shacks, including at the base of the Jones Falls Expressway downtown, Lindamood said.

Fires for warmth

Advocates for the homeless are concerned that inhabitants of such ramshackle dwellings will build fires for warmth. A homeless man was seriously injured New Year's Eve when he jumped from a burning abandoned house in downtown Baltimore.

The shack where yesterday's victim lived was apparently 8 feet by 6 feet, fire officials said. It was accessible from a service road that runs along the west side of Russell Street, within sight of a Monroe Street construction project. The man could read two billboards from the patch of mud he called home, one for an airline advertising cheap fares to Florida. Train tracks pass about 200 feet away.

His home connected via a walkway through the woods to the neighboring shanty 50 feet away.

That neighbor, who called 911, wasn't home yesterday afternoon. His 8-by-4-foot home, a plywood structure covered by tarpaulins, was padlocked, but the door was constructed to allow cats to come and go.

The building was surrounded by a wall of mattresses and sections of wood. A pair of American flags flew from the roof.

And hanging on the front door was a painted, craft-store sign: "Welcome."

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