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Grassroots homeless outreach, founded by Rodgers Forge man, delivers compassion and aid

On any given night, more than 745 men, women and children are in homeless shelters or living on the streets.

Dan Griffin bought his Honda Odyssey new in 2008 and has since racked up 90,000 miles on the minivan, using it for everything from family excursions to Cub Scout events.

Earlier this month, it was being filled with boxes and bags of old clothes to donate to the needy.

Griffin, 51, of Rodgers Forge, is known as "Dan the Van Man," as a volunteer in a recently reinvented grassroots group called Homeless Outreach: CALM, which stands for Compassion-Aid-Love-Mercy.

Its mission, said founder Robert Williams, 48, also of Rodgers Forge, is partly to do "street outreach" and try to find and help homeless people living on the streets of Baltimore County. CALM is also a liaison with more established charitable groups such as Prologue Inc., in Towson, the Assistance Center of Towson Churches, and the Franciscan Center of Baltimore, helping to supply those groups with clothing and other goods for the needy.

According to the Baltimore County government's website, the county last year received more than 6,600 requests for shelter, representing more than 3,100 individual households.

"On any given night, more than 745 men, women and children are housed in homeless shelters or living on the streets and in encampments throughout Baltimore County," the website states.

But, said Williams, "There's a lot of people in the county that don't equate homelessness as being in the county. They think it's a city issue."

For Williams, it's a priority issue.

"My goal every day is serving others," said the bald, bearded Williams, known in the neighborhood as "Mr. Rob," who focuses on CALM and as co-leader of Rodgers Forge's Citizens on Patrol group, while also running a professional dog-walking service. "I'm a community-oriented person, whether it's helping COP or walking dogs."

From BOLT to CALM

Readers might remember Williams as the founder of Operation BOLT, the Blankets of Love Tour. In January 2014, he and neighbor John Falconer could be found in the wee hours of the morning driving around and distributing blankets and food to men and women sleeping on Towson streets.

"A concern for the homeless was placed on my heart," Williams said, explaining why he started BOLT with its lightning bolt logo. That winter-only outreach effort quickly gained traction in the neighborhood, as residents brought blankets, clothing and canned food to his rowhouse.

But Williams decided that BOLT sounded too loud and off-putting, so he renamed it CALM and broadened his efforts to include bringing donations to other groups — and to do outreach year round, not just in the winter.

"It's the same organization, just a different name," Williams said. CALM does not have nonprofit status but has its own Gofundme page online and plans to join Fusion Partnerships Inc., a Baltimore-based 501(c)(3) that serves as an incubator andfiscal sponsor for grassroots, community-based programs and projects that are working for social justice, according to its website.

"The goal of this outreach is to provide temporary help to the homeless population in Baltimore County," the CALM page states. "Donating to this outreach will allow me to purchase gift cards and bulk items such as blankets, socks and any other items necessary to help the homeless. Money raised will also go to local organizations such as Prologue and the Assistance Center of Towson Churches, who provide assistance to the homeless. Thank you in advance for your support."

Williams' base of operations is the basement of his house, where he has his home office and checks online regularly to see how much money has been pledged on his Gofundme page.

"I have raised, not much," he said Nov. 6, a month to the day after he first posted the page. The total then was $285. It was up to $515 as of Nov. 20, just over a third of the $1,500 he is trying to raise.

The same basic team of Williams, Falconer and Griffin that formed the nucleus of BOLT is also the heart and soul of CALM.

"Rob sucked me into it," said Falconer, 53, a professional landscaper. "I've always had an affinity for the homeless. I feel good about doing [outreach]. I'm helping someone who can't necessarily help themselves."

And he likes CALM better as a new incarnation of BOLT. "It's a little more broad than it was before," he said.

For now, CALM is doing better at donating clothes to other groups than it is at reaching out personally to the homeless.

"We're working with organizations that are going to see more [needy] people on a daily basis than we will," Williams said.

Williams and Griffin spent the morning of Nov. 4 at Prologue, a case management and outreach service center located in a house at 609, Baltimore Ave., at the corner of Joppa Road. Prologue offers homeless outreach, psychiatric rehabilitation, peer counseling programs and referrals, as well as a food pantry.

"We're trying to help people survive," said Wade Pratt, Prologue's outreach case manager. He said Prologue is the only drop-in center in the Towson area.

Almost all of Prologue's clients are men, but the organization had a lot of boxes of unusable women's clothing that well-meaning people had donated. Williams and Griffin came to pick up the unwanted clothes, pile them in the back of Griffin's van and take them to The Franciscan Center.

Pratt said Prologue is grateful for CALM's help, and Williams and Griffin were equally impressed with Prologue.

"We didn't realize this was right here, five minutes away from where we live," said Griffin, an international aid consultant to Catholic Charities and other organizations.

After lugging boxes of clothing into the van, Griffin and Williams headed to The Franciscan Center, 101 W. 23rd St., in the city's Old Goucher neighborhood. But when they got there, they learned that unforeseen events can make it difficult to share your blessings. The center's clothing storage room was closed temporarily, and staff members, wearing disposal white hazardous materials suits, were throwing thousands of pounds of donated clothes, stuffed animals and other items into a large trash receptacle for the first time in the organization's history because of an infestation of bedbugs.

"It's breaking my heart to do this, but safety has to come first," said Executive Director Christian Metzger, who gently turned Williams and Griffin away and told them to come back next week with the clothes.

Other areas of The Franciscan Center, including its food pantry, soup kitchen and computer lab for job skills training, remained open and were not believed to be in danger of contamination by bedbugs, Metzger said.

Metzger said the center's budget and donor base are substantial enough that he expected it to recover pretty quickly from the loss of the clothing. But the disposal of so much donated clothing saddened Williams and Griffin.

"It's disheartening to see," Griffin said.

"You're throwing out what's [intended] to help people who already have very little," Williams said. "I'm just glad our stuff did not get thrown out."

Said Griffin, "Imagine if we had come yesterday."

In his basement two days later, Williams was undaunted. He showed videos of homeless people he has befriended.

More than anything, he hoped the donations and press coverage he receives will help CALM become better known as a resource to those who need its help.

"Awareness is key to the success of our outreach," he said.

He invited the public to drop off clothing and other donations at his house, 20 Regester Ave., call him at 410-561-6378, or donate online at www.gofundme.com/h358wxfk.

"My front porch is open 24/7," he said.

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