Taking a midnight ride to help Towson's homeless

Rob Williams returned to his Rodgers Forge townhouse very early Thursday morning and said it was the last time, at least for that week, that he and neighbor John Falconer would face the midnight chill to distribute blankets and food to the men and women sleeping on Towson's streets.

Their nightly missions during the coldest stretch in years were proving successful, but tiring.

"We don't want to exhaust ourselves early in the winter," Williams said.

Yet coming from a man who says if he doesn't go to bed exhausted then he hasn't given enough of himself in a given day — and whose hastily planned outreach became cause célèbre in his Towson community— it's hard to blame him for not keeping his word.

By Thursday, more donated blankets, clothing, and food were dropped off at his home. His neighborhood's enthusiasm for helping Towson's homeless meant the pair would ride again that night.

Williams, whose wide glasses separate a bald head from a thick white beard, is known to neighbors as "Mr. Rob." He walks neighbors' dogs all day, sleeps in the evenings, and wakes around 11 p.m. to walk a beat around Rodgers Forge as co-leader of their Citizens on Patrol.

When temperatures plummeted earlier this week, Williams messaged his neighbors through their online community, NextDoor, and asked if anyone knew of services available for the area's homeless.

Baltimore County reported last January in its annual survey that there were 919 homeless men and woman across the county. According to the county's website, there are shelters in Reisterstown, Rosedale, Woodlawn, and Catonsville, but not in Towson. According to Baltimore City's website, an estimated 2,638 people are on the streets each night in that jurisdiction.

The Assistance Center of Towson Churches, located behind Calvary Baptist Church on East Pennsylvania Avenue, provides daytime aid to those in need, but its staff worries about those who can't find overnight shelter in the area.

"Our concern is that the people who are not staying in shelter are getting sufficient cover with the cold and unusually hard winter that we're having now," ACTC Executive Director Cathy Burgess said. "It's a difficult thing to take care of, because we can instist they go to a shelter … but there are people who won't go."

Williams found that his best option proved to be fueled by his own compassion. He and COP co-leader Falconer decided to drive around downtown Towson to find the homeless and offer them blankets. They cal it Operation BOLT— the Blankets Of Love Tour.

Their first tour was Jan. 6, Monday night, though county police had rounded up the area's homeless and delivered them from the single-digit cold into area shelters. Tuesday night wasn't much warmer, but the Rodgers Forge pair found two men near the library who accepted their assistance.

One, who calls himself "Birdman," is well known in the York Road corridor for his songs and impeccable birdcall. The other is named Timmy Teabout.

"(We) were able to bless them with some blankets and food and some drink," Williams said. The men helped Williams and Falconer find where others might be, and after an hour search that turned up no others, they concluded their Tuesday night tour.

"This is an outreach that I'm perfecting as we go along each and every night, trying to maximize our potential," Williams said as he prepared just before midnight for Wednesday's tour.

A dozen blankets neighbors delivered to his house were piled on his living room couches. In the kitchen, Williams broke a loaf of bread and ladled an Italian sausage dish into paper cups as meals to give out that night.

Falconer, who works the late shift at an alarm-monitoring center, got off his shift at 11 p.m. and knocked on Williams' door at midnight.

The men left Rodgers Forge at around 12:20 a.m. to stock up on coffee and doughnuts at Royal Farms, where their tour would begin as well.

A woman named Belinda Brown, who told the pair she was homeless, waited outside pulling on a cigarette when Falconer and Williams emerged with their haul. Bundled in a heavy black coat, Brown explained that she bought an all-day bus pass each morning and spent her days riding around the city, but missed her Baltimore stop and found herself in Towson.

As she told her story, tugging at her worn gray knit hat, Falconer returned to the car for a wool blanket. Other customers filed past, looking quizzically at Williams, seemingly for paying Brown any mind. Williams, a former deacon, listened with a sympathetic ear for nearly 10 minutes.

"All these people want is a little compassion, someone to listen to them for a while," Falconer said, as Williams brought Brown into the store and bought her a box of fried chicken.

Fortified by Krispy Kreme and success, Falconer pulled out of the convenience store Towson as Brown boarded the #8 bus back to the city, blanket under her arm.

The pair went first to check the American Legion property, known to be sleeping area for some homeless. Falconer's headlights revealed only an empty, frozen baseball diamond. The car then crawled up York Road toward the library, where they'd found Timmy Teabout and Birdman the night before.

Teabout was again nearby, walking in front of the library parking garage on Chesapeake Avenue. As Falconer talked to Teabout, Williams gathered pastries be bought and donated candy bars to him. Their interaction was brief. Both commented that Teabout seemed different, a bit less mentally present, than he had the night before. Minutes later, the pair moved on.

Falconer wove through the streets and alleys of Towson's core.

"Every crack and crevice," he said, peering out the window.

Before they completed a full lap around Towson, Falconer and Williams encountered another.

A man named Damien Spedalerg was camped beneath an overhang outside Jake's NY Deli, his belongings strewn between HVAC machines and Dumpsters in the alcove off Washington Avenue.

Spedalerg, at first leery of the two, came out and began sharing his story with Falconer and Williams. He spoke quickly, alternating between gratitude for the attention and laments about those who ignore him.

"They see me back here…" he said, turning his hands up in frustration.

Spedalerg didn't accept a blanket — he said he had three, all of which had kept him warm through the week's single-digit cold. But he was glad for the food, and told his benefactors of a friend who years ago died of hypothermia on a frigid night not unlike the one he'd just survived.

"Nights like last night are deadly," he said.

Spedalerg, in a puffy black knee-length coat with a fur-lined hood, sweatpants and work boots, went on to explain who else might be in the area and where. He said he stays in Towson because he feels safer there than in Baltimore City.

As they spoke, Williams laid out Spedalerg's share of the rations on a commercial grease receptacle. Williams, not satisfied with just delivering a warm meal, candy bars and coffee cakes, asked Damian what else he could use. They talked of new backpacks and coats and, as his baggy sweatpants fell to his ankles while he walked, a pair of pants that fit Damian's size-36 waist.

After leaving Spedalerg, the two searched for 30 more minutes, crisscrossing Towson's core. Finding no one else, they packed it in.

As Falconer drove home, they said this would be the last tour for the week, with Falconer committed to spending a waking hour or two with his wife and Williams itching to resume his COP duties.

But all day Thursday, neighbors' donations of blankets, bags, food and toiletries piled up on Williams' front porch. One neighbor asked if her teenage son could tag along and witness their good works. They decided to go out again Thursday night into Friday morning.

That, Williams insisted, would really be the last night until the following week.

They said they will press on through January and toward spring, bolstered not by the daytime hours spent organizing donations or the fruitless late-night peeks into alleys, but the knowing words interspersed between Spedalerg's endless gratitude.

"There's a lot more winter left," he said. "We have a lot more frigid nights."

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