A warm van and a helping hand

`HOMELESS? I'll give you homeless,'' said the cabbie to the beat and tick of the windshield wipers. ``All those guys standing around Harvard Square. It makes me sick. It makes me mad. Why can't they go somewhere? All the money in this country, we got no place to put those guys?''

The cab lurched through the rain-soaked streets of Boston while the driver spoke of his own recent move after a rent increase from $200 to $900 a month. ``Life's hard. Life's no picnic here. But there's goodness in people, you know?''

Indeed, there is.

Whether it is this Boston cabdriver phoning the police about a man huddled on the street corner on the coldest night of the year, or the thousands of volunteers turning out at emergency shelters during holiday times, or the staffs of special outreach programs helping the chronic street people, Americans are responding to the plight of the homeless. (Volunteers aid homeless in New York, Page 3.)

One of this country's most serious and obdurate social issues, homelessness in America continues unabated. Last year cities reported a 25 percent increase in demand for emergency shelter and a 30 percent increase in emergency food assistance, according to the US Conference of Mayors. Estimates range from 250,000 to 2 million people now living on the street or in shelters. While alcoholism and chronic poverty are still the main causes of homelessness, not since the depression have there been so many families and mentally ill people on the street. And with the onset of winter, the situation, particularly in the Northeast cities, is again at its most serious.

``We're talking about ensuring people's survival,'' says Randy Bailey, associate director of Boston's Pine Street Inn, one of the oldest emergency housing shelters in the country. ``That's what it's all about. These people simply need housing.''

In Boston alone emergency housing has increased some 56 percent during the past three years. Nonetheless, the city's 1,500 beds - plus the hundreds crammed into lobbies and day rooms of shelters - do little to stem the tide of Boston's homeless. Estimates range from 2,800 to more than 5,000 people living in the city's shelters, welfare hotels, and on the streets. And the percentage of homeless children now tops 13 percent.

``The question is, how do we provide for those living over heating grates and in doorways,'' Mr. Bailey says. ``So far the police were the only ones dealing with them, going down back alleys just to make sure they were breathing.''

Now, however, a unique pilot project, sponsored by the Pine Street Inn and funded by a special state Welfare Department grant, is helping reach Boston's hard-core homeless - the more than 700 men and women who spend every night curled on doorsteps, sprawled on fire escapes, or huddled in abandoned buildings.

Sometimes in pairs or small groups, but most often alone with only an empty liquor bottle at their side, these chronic homeless - many of whom have lived on the street for nearly two decades - have long been beyond the reach of most traditional shelter facilities. But now the Pine Street rescue project, a specially equipped van patrolling the streets every night from mid-October through mid-April, is providing assistance, in the form of food, clothing, and the offer of a ride to shelter.

While Boston, like many Northern cities, sponsors an emergency ``cold-weather services van'' for the homeless during the winter's most bitter nights, the Pine Street rescue project is at present the only one of its kind operating regularly in the Northeast.

``This kind of project was long overdue,'' says Bob Webber, a longtime Pine Street employee and supervisor of the rescue project. ``No one was doing anything like this except the police. Now we're the ones they call.''

On this particular rain-soaked November night with a raw east wind, Mr. Webber navigates the bright red rescue van over the city's pot-hole pitted streets. Inside, yellow trash bags are filled with secondhand coats and blankets, or loaves of fresh bread. A covered tub of hot soup is lashed to the van's rubberized floor.

Outside under the streetlamps, unseeing mannequins stare out from glittery department-store windows while the last of the evening's shoppers hurry home and others slip into corner tables at candle-lit restaurants. But Webber drives on in search of the city's underbelly, the dark, unlit corners where the glint of an empty bottle or barest slip of blanket and piece of sodden cardboard betrays the hidden home of the underclass.

``I've been working with these guys for 30 years,'' says Webber, circling Boston's affluent Back Bay. ``Some of them I used to go drinking with. It's sad to see their deterioration. But they're still individuals, still distinct people.'' Webber himself turned to social work after several years of alcoholic ``benders,'' one of which left him with badly frozen feet and amputated toes. ``That's when I decided to put a cork in it,'' he says tersely. ``Now I'm just trying to help somebody else.''

That somebody else is the 40 to 50 homeless street people Webber and his staff - tonight Bonnie Wilkins, a Pine Street Inn nurse, and J.T. Lenoch, a human services student - see each night between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. It is an unsentimental journey, this roaming vigil, one marked by pathos and poverty, but also friendship, quiet dignity, and even flashes of humor. For the rescue team it is a way of putting a face on the nation's homeless.

``Hey, Stuart, how ya' doin? Need another blanket tonight?'' asks Ms. Wilkins, passing a bowl of steaming pea soup and a handful of bread to the man huddled on a nest of dirty blankets. Stuart, like many of the homeless encountered that night, is among the regulars on the route.

``Thanks, you guys,'' says Stuart, waving off any further help.

``One thing you have to realize,'' says Webber in the van, ``is that a certain percentage of these people don't want our help, or anyone else's. This is their corner of the world and they like it that way.''

Nonetheless, others on the evening's route admit that the rescue van project is ``the best thing that ever happened to me.'' A former electronics engineer, Andy, has been living under a set of church steps for six years. ``Sometimes I miss my meals down at the Paulist Fathers,'' Andy says. ``But I don't like to go to the [Pine Street] Inn, it's too crowded.''

Although the rescue staff encourages all the homeless to return to the safety of the shelter, to date only 10 percent have accepted, but more are expected as the winter progresses. Most prefer a hot bowl of soup, and a friendly word. ``A lot of them just like to stay on the street,'' Webber says. ``They don't like the rules and regulations of the shelters.''

Even Mark Scheltek, who had stood for 12 hours in the rain on crutches - ``Hey, you got any change?'' - had to be coaxed into the van. A former underwater welder, Mark said his homelessness was the result of ``a life that didn't work out.'' For a while there is silence.

``Are you mad at me?'' asks Mark. ``If you are, I'll go.''

``No, nobody in here's mad at you,'' says Webber, turning the van in the direction of the inn.

``I [messed] up, man.'' says Mark. ``I'm sorry.''

``Hey,'' says Webber quietly. ``These things happen.''

Outside, winter is coming and Webber has dozens more homeless to find and feed before the night is over. But here in the van it is warm and one homeless man is being helped home by his fellow man.

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