Terry Reed, that man on President Street

Terry Reed asks me to remove the cash-filled cardboard coffee cup from the split-hook prosthetic claw that serves as his right hand. "Just put it in my coat pocket, please," he says, as breezes from the brisk traffic along President Street add some wind chill to the dropping temperature.

President Street is where Terry Reed does most of his panhandling, and he's hard to miss — a thin man who stands on the solid white line that marks the left-turn lane. He wears a dark blue winter coat and a pair of pants that stop at his knees, revealing chocolate-colored prosthetic limbs below that. The first time you see him, you might be given to muttering, "Lord, have mercy."

It's a little after 8 o'clock on Saturday night, and the downtown streets are filled with families and young couples, many of them in festive outfits, coming from or going to holiday events at the Inner Harbor and at Market Place. Mr. Reed has been panhandling at the busy intersection of President and Lombard; his cup is full of bills. As requested, I slip it into his coat pocket.

"Are you hungry?" I ask.

"Yes," he says, and he suddenly seems eager to get something to eat. "I'll tell you my story," he says, and we cross Lombard Street against traffic and walk to Market Place.

Mr. Reed says he was born in 1965 without legs below his knees, and without forearms. His right arm has an elbow, his left does not.

He wears prosthetic equipment that looks outdated — lower legs encased in brownish plastic once meant to match Mr. Reed's skin tone, with Nike running shoes on the feet, and a brace of metal and leather for his thighs. The forearms are of wood-grained plastic and metal. On this night, Mr. Reed has removed the prosthesis from his left arm; it dangles on a strap. He grimaces and mentions pain in the shoulder above it.

At the Subway in Market Place, I order him a foot-long sub, and he asks for the strangest combination I'd ever heard of: "Meatball with tuna, with mayonnaise." The Subway sandwich-builder obliges with five scoops of tuna salad, then a layer of meatballs and sauce, four slices of provolone, and a long, generous squirt of mayonnaise.

"Could I have two double chocolate cookies, too?" Mr. Reed asks.

We sit down. He asks me to unwrap the sub and place half of it on its wrapping near the edge of the table. Mr. Reed adjusts the angle of the sub with the split hook on his right hand, then leans down and eats the sub off the table, devouring it in just a few minutes. He then asks me to unwrap the second half.

"I'm hungrier than I thought," he says.

I buy him a cup of sweet ice tea.

"A motel on North Avenue," Mr. Reed says when I ask where he lives. "And sometimes I stay in a house where they charge $50 a night."

Mr. Reed says he lived with his mother, whom he described as a "chronic alcoholic," until her death 10 years ago. After that, he says, he was on his own, and apparently became estranged from five of his six older siblings. He has his mail delivered to a sister's house in West Baltimore.

Mr. Reed says he receives about $900 a month from a federal disability benefit. That's half of what he needs to keep from being homeless. So he panhandles on President Street to pay for housing and for food. He's out there, he says, "every day that I have the strength."

He also presumably needs money for his heroin habit. Mr. Reed says he uses the drug, but, at 46, would like to stop. "I was clean for a while once," he says. "I would like to get clean again."

I give him a little advice: Go to Health Care for The Homeless (HCH), just a few blocks away on the Fallsway. They have a Housing First program, and the whole idea is to get people like Terry Reed off the street so they have a place to stay while they deal with other problems. It's the opposite of the "housing ready" approach that requires people to be in treatment before getting a place to live. Housing First is proving to be far more successful at getting people out of the cycle of homelessness, according to HCH.

Mr. Reed will likely fail if he tries to get clean while hustling every day for hotel and heroin money.

He grimaces again as we speak. It's the pain in his left shoulder.

"I have an abscess there the size of a tennis ball," he says, and he suggests the infection came from a needle. "I'm going to the hospital tonight."

He finishes eating, then we step outside. Market Place is full of young men and women heading to night clubs and parents and children heading home from holiday events. I put Mr. Reed in a cab and send him off.

By Sunday afternoon, he's in an operating room at Union Memorial Hospital. I stop by and see him on Monday, and he seems to be doing a lot better; he's in good spirits as he heals from the infection.

"I told you I'd get to the hospital," he says.

"You did the right thing," I add.

Mr. Reed asks me to slide a piece of chocolate cake across a bed tray so he can lean forward and eat it. "And can you please get me my Bible?" he asks, nodding toward the shelf along the window in his room. I find a paperback edition of the King James Bible there, dog-eared and crinkly from having been wet. It's among Terry Reed's few possessions. I position the Bible against the bed tray as my visit ends. I tell him I'll look into housing and maybe an electric-powered wheelchair. I'll make some calls.

I'll let you know how this turns out.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesday, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR-FM, 88.1. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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