IT WAS APPROXIMATELY 9 P.M., Saturday, Dec. 9, 2006, when things finally fell apart completely. The temperature was 18 degrees with a 6-degree wind chill. I was standing at a bus stop on Park Heights Avenue at Fords Lane, as numb from the idea that I was on the street, homeless, as from the biting wind and bitter cold.
I had $40, a bus pass, two bulky trash bags with clothes, a sleeping bag, toiletries, an almost-dead cell phone, and many versions of “Oh wow, that’s really horrible, you know I’d love to help you out, but . . . ” echoing in my mind. I was down to two phone numbers I thought I’d never be calling again in urgent need.
M. and B. had both started out as connections, but eventually morphed into friends as we fought to get clean and stay clean, together and alone. M. said to come on over, but that she couldn’t pick me up. B. said if I could catch the bus to Penn-North Metro station, he would take me to M.’s.
After the first of what would become many recitations of the hows and whys, I crashed in M.’s basement, sleeping bag spread over an old mattress-less box spring and fell asleep. But I knew this wasn’t a long-term option. Still, I was able to sleep from about 4:00 A.M. until almost noon before I had to get up, get something hot inside me, and get moving. While it was still below freezing, it was light out, and things looked a little less desperate.
I was sure that I could find a couch to crash on for a couple nights until I figured out what to do. But by the time it was getting dark, I was worried, as the forecast called for an even colder night.
When I had contacted every last person I could think of, I got on a bus thinking I could ride that or the train all night—but not in Baltimore, where no trains and very few buses run all night. I saw an ad for the City’s old Code Blue Emergency Shelter in an old school on Guilford Avenue, and I eventually ended up there at about 11:00 P.M..
Standing under a large sign that read, “You have a right to be treated with dignity and respect,” Baltimore City police officers—who were providing security—frisked me, searched my bag, and denigrated me and others waiting to get in. I was taken to an old classroom that differed from a dorm in the Baltimore City Jail only in the absence of bars on the windows. This was my first and last visit to Code Blue.
I was back on the streets at 7 A.M. and headed to the Homeless Services Unit of the Department of Social Services, confident they would get me into permanent housing right away. I was in for a surprise: On any given night there are around 3,000 people on the streets, and there aren’t enough shelter beds, much less more permanent housing options available. I was told that Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training (aka McVets) was one of the cleanest and safest shelters. Because it’s run like a military facility, it’s clean and safe, with excellent showers and bathrooms. But you either have to be a veteran or have a referral from the Department of Social Services, and you can’t lie down until the cots are brought out at 11:00 P.M.. They wake you at 4:30 A.M., and the cots are put away.
I alternated between McVets and a spot behind the Enoch Pratt library on Reisterstown Road. With a layer of cardboard 4 inches thick, my sleeping bag, and a quilt, I was OK if it was above 30 degrees.
As time went on, fed up with the 4:30 A.M. wake up, I stopped going staying at McVets. For about a year, I was slipping through a window into the basement of the (now-condemned) apartment building where I had lived with my ex-wife and family.
When the building was finally boarded up, I had just stumbled upon an unused shed—without heat, electricity, water, or plumbing—behind a vacant office building in Pikesville, where I have been for the past three and a half years, relatively undisturbed. But the shed has deteriorated to the point that the roof won’t last another winter. And every morning, I hope I won’t be there another night.
Dave blogs about life on the street at homlesscide.blogspot.com