Why are you out here, brother? Why are you living in a tent, sister? Why are you panhandling? What happened? As I drive around Baltimore, as I observe people on buses and benches, as I walk the streets, those questions come up: Why are you standing in traffic with that sign? How did it come to this?
The immediate answer, the one that seems so obvious, is drugs. Heroin or crack. Heroin or pills. Or maybe cheap wine and beer. Or maybe all of the above.
That’s not speculation from a distance. It comes from hearing many stories over many years. But, if I’ve learned anything about drug addiction or alcoholism in Our City of Perpetual Recovery, it’s that the illness is not the start of the story. Talk to almost anyone who looks for heroin or pills every day, no matter the risks to health, and you hear stories so tragic and bleak — about poverty, violence, dysfunction, failure and bad luck — you’re amazed that the man or woman telling the story is still alive.
Because comparison comes naturally to all of us, you might recall a period of darkness in your own life. But then you realize, as bad as things were, you managed to keep from falling forever. You had family. You had friends. You never reached for heroin, never lost everything, never moved into a tent along a river.
So I ask Jason Gill, who is 34 years old, and Brandi Gaver, who is 35, how they came to be homeless, living in a camp along the waters behind the Horseshoe Casino and then along the Gwynns Falls under Interstate 95 near Washington Boulevard.
“Two years ago, our 10-year-old son went into a diabetic coma and died,” Jason says. “It was July 19, 2017.”
We are standing on Ward Street in Pigtown, across from Paul’s Place, where dozens of Baltimore’s homeless men and women go every day to eat, shower, pick up their mail, do their laundry and get help from staff and volunteers.
Jason and Brandi are not married, but they have been together for 12 years. Jason had a job as a cook; he trained in culinary arts at Stratford University. He and Brandi had a child, Christopher, who had diabetes throughout his short life.
After the boy died, Jason and Brandi say, they went into a freefall. She first reached for pain pills, and they both ended up using heroin. They had used drugs in the past, and the death of their child triggered an appetite for more. Jason stopped going to work. They were evicted from a house they shared on Gilmor Street in southwest Baltimore.
They got a tent and provisions and moved into a camp of homeless people behind the casino, a place where Jason’s former brother-in-law had been living.
“He died of an overdose, died in his tent,” Jason says, dropping that fact on me as we roll through a quick narrative of his life with Brandi these past two years.
“Wait. Your sister’s ex-husband?” I ask, and Jason gives the name of the man and his age, and then we move on.
“We stayed behind the casino until the city moved everyone out,” Brandi says from her seat on rowhouse steps on Ward Street, a book about the Ten Commandments in her hands. They landed in another camp, under the interstate, on the banks of the Gwynns Falls. When they needed a warm meal and a place to wash up, they went to Paul’s Place. They collected aluminum cans in a collapsible shopping cart and got cash for them at a salvage yard near their Gwynns Falls campsite.
In July, around the second anniversary of his son’s death, Jason says, he and Brandi gave up heroin and got into a nearby methadone treatment program.
Then, last month, during a Thanksgiving meal at the Transfiguration Catholic Community on Hamburg Street, Jason and Brandi met the Rev. Jeff Dauses. He and parishioners from St. Andrew by the Bay in Anne Arundel County were there to help serve the holiday meal. “I sat and had a conversation with Jason and Brandi,” Father Jeff says.
And he asked the question: How is it that you are here? He heard pretty much what I heard the other day — about the son who had died, about the transition from work and home to drugs and homelessness to the start of recovery. “We were honest with him,” Brandi says.
And then Father Jeff moved to the next question: How can we help?
He quickly organized a support group of parishioners and friends to fund a transition. Gisela Barry, a St. Andrew’s volunteer who leads outreach to the homeless, arranged to have Jason and Brandi move into a furnished apartment in a house near Coppin State University. The support group will cover the rent for six months.
Now Jason and Brandi take the No. 26 bus to the methadone clinic each day. He’s looking for a job in a kitchen with an employer who will understand that he’s in recovery. “Line cook or dishwasher, anything to start,” he says. Brandi says she’d be happy doing housekeeping work.
They know they have been given a great gift from strangers, and they seem earnest about making a fresh start. I’ve seen and heard that earnestness before in people in recovery. Sometimes it lasts, sometimes not. Here’s hoping Jason and Brandi beat the odds.