There was thud and crackle when I stepped out of the car the other evening - my foot landing on a frozen puddle in a driveway and punching a hole in the ice. That's how cold it was, and I'm guessing 10 degrees colder than when I'd left downtown Baltimore just 50 minutes earlier. It had taken me that long to reach the country road where Steve Shaw said I'd find the "suburban homeless" woman.
"I am active with the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore," Shaw had introduced himself six weeks ago. "Many times during our meetings, the leaders speak of the homeless in downtown and ways to help ... which brings me to the suburban homeless thing."
By that, Shaw, a sales rep for a large security company in Hunt Valley, meant the human being who appeared to be living in a car in a Carroll County farm field surrounded by new development. Shaw had driven by several times since last winter; and he'd become convinced that the sedan was someone's shelter. There was a cooler on the ground next to the car; the back seat and passenger side were packed with personal belongings, and clothes were hanging on a line nearby.
"It bothers me," Shaw wrote in an e-mail. "I have stopped once, but the person was not in the car. I would like to find out who this person is, and then put together an action plan to help them out. My wife and I are pretty active members in my community; there has got to be something we can do to help."
I asked Shaw for directions with the idea of looking into this "suburban homeless thing" myself.
Before I could, he sent another update: "My wife heard that this homeless person is a woman who may have already refused help. I am going to stop and speak with her next time I drive by. It is way too cold now to be sleeping in a car. There must be something we can do."
Shaw was about to do what Jeff Singer, longtime leader of Health Care for the Homeless in Baltimore, suggests in these situations - engage the person you think needs help, see if you can start a dialogue, try to get to know them. The best approach, says Singer, is direct and personal. You can't put together an "action plan" for someone unless you know who they are and what they need.
And, while it's important and necessary to get professionals involved - particularly in cases involving mental illness - no degree in social work is required for the kind of engagement Singer advocates; you just need to be human and willing to approach the homeless stranger. Steve Shaw was.
"I just stopped by and introduced myself to this lady in this very cold car," he said Tuesday, when it was freezing here. "She refused my offer of soup. I asked her if she has looked into any type of shelter. She softly responded that she is OK and can take care of herself. ... Not sure if the car runs. She was bundled up and cold. Maybe her pride is an obstacle. I need to get a game plan. Any ideas or guidance? Can't get her out of my mind."
I called Singer at Health Care for the Homeless, and he got on the line to the Carroll County Department of Social Services. Shaw spoke to someone there, too, and there was confidence by Tuesday evening that a professional versed in social services and the laws protecting adults would be on the case.
As dusk closed in, I pulled into the dirt-and-gravel driveway next to the woman's car and had one of those Lord-have-mercy moments. No one was in the car, but it was packed with clothing and blankets and other items, just as Shaw had described it. There was a clock radio wrapped in wire on the dashboard.
About three minutes later, a young man pulled his pickup truck into the driveway. He said he lived in the house 100 yards ahead, that the woman was his wife's aunt, that sometimes she stayed in the car and sometimes stayed in a barn-style garage next to his house, and that he and his wife had tried to help her a number of times over the last two years, but she had refused their help. The police had been there, he said, as well as social workers. The woman sometimes hears voices, he said.
You know when you've parachuted into a situation that someone else has been living with for a long time, and it feels awkward, and you want to apologize for the intrusion, which is what I did.
I apologized for showing up out of nowhere on a winter evening and asking questions, but, I said, there was this concerned citizen, Steve Shaw, who wanted to make sure the woman would not freeze in the car, and the young man nodded an understanding of that.
It's good we have vigilant people, such as Steve Shaw, who make up for the rest of us - strangers passing each other on the long, rushed commutes between work and home, too busy to stop even when we see something troubling out of the corner of an eye. Because of Shaw, a call went to people who are paid by the county to protect the vulnerable adults among us. Maybe something good will come of that this time. Maybe the woman will accept some help and come in from the cold this time.
The young man in the frozen driveway appreciated the concerns I passed along. I got the feeling that neither I nor Steve Shaw had been the first to stop there and ask about the woman in the car - others had before us, and I took that little bit of good away from it.