In a city where homeless people, drug addicts and healthy young men with squeegees compete on corners everywhere for tips and attention, it is still jarring to this old man to see women among them – in the hot sun or rain, begging.
Meet Sara. She gave me her last name, but I will hold it back. She is white, very thin, tattooed and a frequent denizen of Bolton Hill’s busiest intersection, where North Avenue, Mt. Royal Avenue and the north entrance ramp to I-83 converge. Now 38, she lives with her dog in a tent a few blocks away but does not bring the dog to her corner. “The traffic scares him,” she says.
Sara has been panhandling for the last eight years, and she can be encyclopedic in ticking off the factors that have controlled her adult life: drugs, a diagnosis of bipolar behavior, ADHD, severe anxiety and more. She had some legal troubles, a decade or so ago. She admits she has sold her body on occasion but does not do it now, she says: “It’s my temple.”
In the face of all of this, she is relentlessly cheerful. When we spoke on June 6, she was getting ready to interview at Community Wellness Center on Eastern Avenue in hopes of stabilizing things: getting mental health support, completing her methadone treatment and changing her life. “I’ve tried shelters, but I went back to what was familiar, my tent,” she said. “It’s sort of a form of institutionalization, like people who feel more comfortable in prison.”
Sara grew up in Towson in a regular home. She is in touch, with some boundaries, with both her mother and her 87-year-old grandmother, who care enough to send money and allow her sometimes to come home to shower and clean up, although with her grandmother in quarantine, that has become complicated. Sara says she has a two-year degree in psychology and wants to get work or back in school while her grandmother is alive. “I want them to see me doing something, maybe helping others get off drugs,” she said.
In the past she has worked with animals — horses at Pimlico and dogs at grooming centers. “I don’t want to depend on other people. I’ve got my drugs under control now. I’m okay. I can do this,” she said. The street is harsh: “winter is hard, and summer is worse.” A slow day of begging produces $20-30, and a good day a bit more. Some men proposition her. “Black people are more generous than white people,” she observed. She resents the squeegee kids who, she says, harass her and sometimes steal her money.
She reminds me of a neighbor whom many on West Lafayette Avenue came to know. Daniel Novak was a Navy veteran who lived with other troubled people in a vacant house owned by his mother-in-law. He moved to a tent in the parking lot at the Rite Aid on West Chase Street for a while, but mostly he used the house even though it had no water. He hustled friends and neighbors for jobs to support his habits and to buy sandwiches and soft drinks at corner grocers in Upton. I paid for his cell phone and let him wash my car for cash.
I first met him in 2013 when he showed up and shoveled my sidewalk at night, and then did it again and again overnight as the snow kept falling. Originally from New England, he was articulate and eager to talk about his past, his demons and his hope for a better life: school, jobs, regaining touch with a son. Another man and I took him to drug treatment and helped him find odd jobs. He was a skilled carpenter, painter, tile installer and landscaper — a neat freak who complained about his roommates. He knew a lot of other people who tried to help him. He entered treatment a couple of times at MCVET, a rehabilitation facility for ex-military people.
It never came together for Daniel. His health began to fail him, and he was slow to seek medical treatment. I last saw him on Dec. 8, a Sunday afternoon when he knocked on my door and then collapsed. I gave the EMT my card as they put him in an ambulance and asked her to call to learn about Daniel. No one ever called.
At Mercy Hospital they would only say that he had been admitted to the ER and then discharged. I asked Baltimore police to help find him, but they produced no useful information. His estranged wife told one of Daniel’s friends recently that she heard he had died. That also was the word on the street, relayed by a beggar who knew him. He had recently turned 50.
Keep an eye out for Sara. Keep your fingers crossed for her. She’s a neighbor.