In the beginning, city officials asked these homeless activists if they could avoid calling attention to themselves: no high-visibility signs or big lettering at the front door of the old bank building they had rented. This was back in the day when critics of help for the homeless had a kind of reverse Field of Dreams view of things: If you don't build a refuge, they said, maybe they won't come.
If you don't address the problem, in other words, maybe it'll go away.
The lettering on the window outside the old Equitable Bank Building at 111 Park Ave. still doesn't demand attention. But the problem didn't go away. Street people had their ways of communicating. They got to know where they could go for help.
Nor did Jeff Singer and the handful of men and women who work with him go away. They have shown several generations of Baltimore leaders how the city might demonstrate care and compassion for men, women and children who sleep under expressway ramps and in churchyards.
They have done their work with such relentless avidity that official Baltimore, once anxious for them to disappear, has become a champion. The state has become a partner as well, allotting $3.7 million for the program over the years. Private citizens and various charitable organizations are raising $15.5 million for a new facility. Of this about $14 million is in hand, so the fundraising continues.
Thus on Thursday, city and state officials will be on hand to inaugurate a new Health Care for the Homeless center at the corner of Hillen Street and the Fallsway.
"It's kind of amazing to us," says Mr. Singer, a social worker and social change agent. "People told us we'd never be able to raise the money. We weren't big enough. We didn't have enough of a base. But we persisted."
Mr. Singer's persistence and profile have become legend. He's been as quiet a champion as any member of the establishment could want. With his navy blue tam, his head and face haloed in white hair, he smiles as if the world will always come around to his way of thinking.
And so it has. Mayor Sheila Dixon recently announced a 10-year plan to end homelessness. She stood her ground against the naysayers with this observation: "Everyone deserves a place to sleep at night."
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Former Baltimore mayor, governor and comptroller William Donald Schaefer became an advocate. Never one to offer government help until people demonstrated their own commitment to an idea or a project, he saw Mr. Singer's quiet passion. At one point, he came and sat in the program's waiting room, just observing the system. As governor, he put the program in his budget, thereby conferring important financial stability.
Health Care for the Homeless now lives in the same warren of offices it moved to 17 years ago on Park Avenue. Its original three-member staff has grown to 127. It has three psychiatrists and eight therapists. The old bank building is so crowded that three outreach workers have desks in an old vault bristling with wheels and bars. It's an airless warren that succeeds in pushing these workers onto the street in search of clients.
Health Care for the Homeless last year had 54,000 visits from the estimated 8,000 homeless people in Baltimore. The clinic addresses myriad medical needs. It did 1,000 tests for HIV last year, finding more than 100 people who were HIV-positive and in need of treatment.
Not wishing to leave the matter in the hands of individuals with such transient and erratic lifestyles, the center includes a place where patients can come to take their medications.
Homelessness, Mr. Singer says, is simply a symptom of poverty, with the lack of low-cost housing and jobs at the root of it. Most of the people who seek help at the clinic have no health insurance. Some have lost their jobs as a result of the economic downturn - and, earlier, more homeless were produced by the cutback in benefits that occurred with welfare reform.
Given the nation's economic distress, these issues are not likely to be addressed in the near future. The need for Mr. Singer's program will undoubtedly grow even as he joins those who wish there was no need. Mr. Singer and his team observe that even with a conservative national administration, new initiatives - triggered in part by the economic slowdown - will address some of the underlying problems.
So, this Thursday, ground will be broken for the new building near the feeding program Our Daily Bread and near Mercy Hospital, which deals with Jeff Singer's sicker clients.
A sign on the front of the new health center will proudly say, in letters large enough to be seen from the nearby expressway, Health Care for the Homeless.
C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sunday in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2008, The Baltimore Sun