Howard Fry was already beset by behavioral problems and a beating that left him disabled. Now he needs a new home.

The Baltimore Sun

Howard Fry is a 35-year-old survivor of some of Baltimore's meanest streets, a feisty and at times combative man who was considered disabled even before a vicious crime left him without his legs and hands.

He lives with his middle-aged mother, also disabled, in the Brooklyn section of Baltimore, but for many reasons - including a judge's order - he shouldn't be there.

He needs a new place to live.

But that - like almost every aspect of Howard Fry's troubled life - is a complicated matter. The people assigned to help him have been unable to place Fry where he could get the daily care he needs. Two shelters accustomed to serving the homeless refuse to take him.

There are several reasons for Fry's predicament. One is the lack of public funds to house poor, disabled people like him. Another is Fry's history of behavioral problems that existed long before thugs left him for dead on a winter day more than two years ago.

The circumstances of this man's life are remarkable, but not unique, according to city social services officials.

There are many others like him - brain-damaged from accidents or violent crimes, or dependent on aging parents as their primary caregivers - who have limited choices in housing and medical services. Some end up in jails or prisons; some end up homeless, the men and women we see on median strips asking us to lower our car windows and spare some change.

"One of our very difficult clients," Tom Curtin, manager of the adult protective services unit in the Baltimore City Department of Social Services, says of Fry. "It's the combination of severe disability and behavioral problems. ... And I would expect cases like this to be more frequent, with the number of gunshot wounds we see and the number of adults with substance abuse problems. We will see more cases like this as their safety net deteriorates."

If not for his mother's willingness to let Howard Fry stay in her house - against a judge's order - he would probably be homeless.

"He's my son, and I love him," says Betty Fry. "But his rage since [the attack] has been a hundred times worse than before. He's been a lot more angry. When he acted terrible toward me before, I could put him out of the house. I can't no more."

Howard Fry has a limited intellect, and he cannot read. "Mildly retarded" is how his mother describes him.

When he was an infant, she says, he had an abnormal accumulation of fluids in his skull.

"I don't remember why exactly anymore, or the doctor's name - he was at University Hospital 30 years ago - but I remember him saying [Howard] might not live past the age of 7," Betty Fry says. "But Howard just kept living and living. He just kept living and living and living. ...

"At the age of 3 1/2 or 4, he was diagnosed as hyperactive. He went to school and, after the first or second grade, he was always in special [education] classes."

Howard Fry dropped out after eighth grade.

When he was 13 or 14, Betty Fry says, he became violent and attacked his mother - at least one time with a baseball bat.

"I've had to have him locked up five or six times," she says.

During at least part of his teenage years, he lived in a foster home.

Since the age of 18, however, he's lived a relatively independent life, staying with his mother - sometimes peaceably, sometimes not - or sometimes renting a room in a rowhouse.

Before January 2005, Fry was just one of many poor, disabled adults you might see on a city street, though his disabilities were not as apparent as they are now.

You would have seen him on a bicycle, not in a wheelchair.

And you probably would not have been aware of his disabilities unless you stopped to talk to him.

If you stopped to talk, he likely would have asked you for a dollar or two.

"My mom don't like me panhandling," he says. "It's against the law."

He can be pleasant and playful; he can be short-tempered and profane. There are moments when he surprises you. One day in July, when I asked about the thugs who beat and robbed him, Fry said: "Money is the root of all evil. Look what money did to me - took my hands and legs. ... But you know what? It didn't take my life."

Before January 2005, Fry received a monthly disability check of $560.70 from the Social Security Administration and made extra cash from time to time as a carnival worker or as a helper for a man who sold produce on the street and at flea markets.

"I made good money," he likes to boast. "I gave a lot to my mother. ... I bought her flowers."

That he can no longer perform those tasks adds to the fury that emerges, sometimes with a spray of profanities, when he thinks about the past 2 1/2 years.

The attack

On Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2005 - it is not clear exactly when - he was walking in a stretch of Ramsay Street in Southwest Baltimore known for drug addicts and vagrants. As he walked toward the room he rented in the 1800 block, Fry noticed three men following him.

Frightened, he dodged into an alley behind the 1900 block of Wilkens Ave. He tried to hide inside a brown minivan parked in the alley.

But the men found Fry, pulled him from the van and then, according to the police report of the crime, beat him on the head - one man with a handgun, another with a baseball bat.

The attackers pulled Fry's clothes off, punched him and kicked him.

The last thing Fry remembers was one of the men rifling his pants pockets. After that, he passed out.

Somehow, he ended up on a snow-covered fire escape in the rear of an abandoned rowhouse.

"After this vicious beating," police Detective James Wilder wrote in his report, "Mr. Fry was left lying in a mound of snow ... where he remained for an undetermined amount of time."

A doctor later told investigators Fry would not have survived more than five hours. The temperature in Baltimore on Jan. 19, dropped from 26 to 12 degrees Fahrenheit, and 1 to 3 inches of snow fell.

A homeless person saw Fry on the fire escape and believed he was dead. First-responders found Fry unconscious, his eyes frozen shut and parts of his naked body frozen to the steel fire escape. Fingerprints taken from the victim led police to Fry's arrest record. That's how they were able to identify him and contact his kin.

"As a result of Mr. Fry being left in an unconscious state, lying in the snow in below-freezing temperatures," Wilder went on in the report, "he sustained severe frostbite to his extremities, resulting in the amputation of both hands, and both legs beneath the knee."

Actually, Fry's right hand was not amputated, but he lost all digits. He is able to squeeze what remains of his right thumb against the palm to hold certain objects - dollar bills, for instance, which he receives these days as a panhandler on the sidewalks of Brooklyn. (He was able to sign his name to a form giving permission to the Baltimore City Department of Social Services to discuss his case with The Sun.)

With Fry's help, Wilder was able to identify the assailants and build a case. Three men were arrested in the assault and robbery, each of them from the neighborhood where Fry had rented his room.

Two of the defendants became prosecution witnesses, says Bethany Durand, assistant state's attorney. They pleaded guilty and received 25-year prison sentences, with all but 15 years suspended.

The third attacker was found guilty and sentenced to 40 years.

Howard Fry spent nine months undergoing extensive treatment at the University of Maryland Medical Center and an affiliated special-care center on South Charles Street.

"Mr. Fry's quality of life has been permanently altered," the detective wrote in his report.

When he was released, Fry had nowhere to go but home. His mother has been taking care of him ever since, with no resources other than their monthly disability income.

She applied to the Maryland Criminal Injuries Compensation Board for help, but the board rejected the claim, saying Howard Fry had "not incurred the minimum financial loss to qualify for an award."

The board noted that Howard Fry was not employed at the time of the beating and that his treatment had been covered by the Maryland Medical Assistance Program.

The Baltimore state's attorney's office helped Fry's mother get him a battery-powered wheelchair.

A meeting in July

I first met Howard Fry in July, when his mother contacted The Sun to complain that the chair wasn't working.

"He needs that wheelchair," Betty Fry said. "He likes to go out to the Royal Farms Store, and he can't go without it."

Betty Fry rents a rowhouse with a front porch on Seventh Street in Brooklyn. Her son sleeps on a bed in the front room. She cleans him - when he is willing to be cleaned - shaves him and dresses him.

Each morning, he slides into the chair and drives several long blocks to the convenience store at Patapsco Avenue and Hanover Street.

He parks in a shady spot on the sidewalk and panhandles. He drinks sodas and protein shakes. He seldom eats solid food. He smokes cigarettes. He spends much of the day away from his house and avoids conflict with his mother.

Adult-protective services is well aware that in July, a District Court judge ordered Fry to keep away from his mother. Betty Fry, who suffers from depression, claimed that her son rammed her with his wheelchair. Since then, social workers have been trying to find him another home.

But it's difficult, says Curtin.

There are limited funds for a person in Fry's situation.

And there's the behavior.

"We have to be completely factual with potential care providers," Curtin says. "At 35, this is someone who wants his freedom, wants to be on the street, who has a history of assaultive behavior. It's been difficult."

Fry could live a relatively independent life, but he has intimate-care needs that require daily visits from a home health worker. He also needs to have his meals prepared.

"He is willing to consider living anywhere," says Curtin. "But ultimately he wants to remain in Brooklyn. He'd be extremely vulnerable in any other neighborhood. The problem is there is not a lot of assisted living in Brooklyn."

That doesn't mean finding a new place - away from his mother, and off the streets - is impossible.

"But this is not an entitlement situation," Curtin points out. "It has to be voluntary." He hopes the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Administration will be able to arrange an apartment for Fry, perhaps with a roommate with similar needs.

"But DDA does not have piles of money," Curtin says. "The system [for adults in Fry's situation] is not fully funded. ... But we continue to advocate for him."

And Betty Fry continues to be stressed and depressed. "I can't take it no more," she says. "I can't take care of him. I'm getting upset with God."

And Howard Fry spends most of the day in the wheelchair, in the shade by the Royal Farms Store, panhandling for change and dollar bills. "Need money," he says, "so I can buy some flowers for my mom."

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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