Literally offering open-door policy

The Baltimore Sun

What we have today is a young man of some privilege, a Montgomery County kid who graduated from a Jesuit college in May and who moved to Baltimore for two reasons: to take a great job with a big downtown financial institution and to provide shelter for the homeless. I'm calling him Michael for the sake of this story; he doesn't want his real name used.

Michael rented a two-story rowhouse in a neighborhood he calls "sketchy," found a homeless couple who were living in a tent nearby and invited them to come home with him. Lydia and Paul - not their real names - moved in two weeks ago. I had a cup of instant coffee with the three of them Thursday night.

I have been writing Baltimore stories for 30 years, and I think this is a first - young urban professional rents rowhouse, opens it up to homeless couple. (Oh, and he changes out of his suit when he leaves the office each night so that, when he returns to the sketchy neighborhood, he's pretty much dressed like most of those who live there.)

One of Michael's college friends told us about him, and we got in touch.

Michael wanted neither his real name nor his address published, for two reasons: He's not looking for publicity, and his generosity probably constitutes a violation of his lease. His landlord might not appreciate his giving up two bedrooms to a middle-aged couple fresh from a tent. For that reason, I'm not naming the "sketchy" neighborhood where he rents. (It's a part of town I would call "in transition," meaning the inhabitants are a combination of poor renters, blue-collar homeowners and an increasing number of yuppies living in renovated houses.)

"My family doesn't know what I'm doing, either," Michael says. "This is just something I wanted to do. I don't know how this will all work out, but so far, so good."

After graduation last spring, Michael shared a suburban condominium with a college chum. At night, he'd dress down and drive into Baltimore, seek out the homeless, hang with them, talk with some. "I wanted to see what that world looks like and how everything works," he explains.

He met panhandlers. He met scrap pickers. He visited a small shanty town off the edge of a parking lot in one of the industrial backstretches on the southern edge of the city.

Each night he returned to the condominium in Columbia, each morning to his job in a downtown office building. He wanted to do something for the homeless but wasn't exactly sure what.

"I believe that God loves his people," Michael says when I ask about his faith. "Yet every day I pass people on the street who are suffering, depressed and hopeless. I see others treat them like animals, like they are worthless. And the worst part is, the homeless start to believe it. Many have not felt the warmth of friendship, family or love in such a long time that they have forgotten what it feels like. I may not be a theologian, but I know that this is not God's plan."

Acting on the Jesuit ideal of "men for others," Michael moved to Baltimore and rented a house. A college buddy lent him some furniture. At night, Michael changed out of his suit at work, dressed "street" and took long walks, encountering homeless people just a few blocks from his new house.

He met Paul, bearded and jockey-size, while he was panhandling at a busy intersection.

Paul, who walks with a hard limp from a work injury, had been laid off in December from a home-improvement job. He and his wife, Lydia, both in their 40s, could no longer afford to rent their rooms in Glen Burnie. For a time, they lived out of their van. When the van's transmission died, they moved into a tent near a parking lot by some railroad tracks. There were four other tents, all occupied.

One night two weeks ago, Michael decided to make Lydia and Paul his first houseguests.

"Look," he told them on the street, "I have this house, and you're welcome to come back with me."

Lydia thought the offer odd at first. "I was skeptical," she says. "But you can see just from talking to him that [Michael] is genuine."

Paul waited until the "5 at 8 lady" drove up to his panhandling post - that's a woman who gives him $5 every night around 8 p.m. - then went home with Michael. He and Lydia gathered their clothes out of the tent, and they've been staying with Michael ever since.

"It's nice to be able to take a shower again," Lydia says.

"We can cook, we can do our laundry," says Paul. "It's an opportunity to get on our feet again."

There are conditions: no drinking, no drugs, no smoking, no guests. And Paul and Lydia must look for work during the next three months. Lydia thinks she'll have a job as a waitress soon. Paul would like to get back into home improvement. In the meantime, he panhandles. He says he makes $30 in an eight-hour day.

That's not what he intends to be doing forever.

"I want to create a 'wall-of-wants,'" Michael says, gesturing toward a wall of exposed brick near the narrow staircase in the middle of the house. "I want a board where everyone who lives here, including me, can list what they want in life, what their dreams are, and it stares you in the face every day."

I asked Lydia what she wanted, and she said, "I want to open a little restaurant of my own someday."

Paul said, "You know, white picket fence and all, the American dream."

As for Michael, he said: "I already have what I want. ... So, maybe a bag of Twizzlers, original flavor, will do."

Dan Rodricks can be heard on Midday, noon to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday on 88.1, WYPR-FM. Drug dealers, former drug dealers and others with criminal records can obtain information about re-entry programs and jobs by contacting Dan Rodricks at 410-332-6166 or by e-mail.

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