Hollywood has discovered the homeless with a vengeance. Martin Sheen and Cicely Tyson will star in a TV movie about Mitch Snyder, Washington, D.C.’s brazen champion of the dispossessed. Steven Spielberg plans a film about Philadelphia’s teenage philanthropist hero, Trevor Ferrell. But far from all the hoopla, hundreds of advocates are working to feed, house and scavenge funds for the needy. Along with the Salvation Army, the century-old standby that provides shelter to thousands, these people sacrifice part of their own lives to get others off the streets.
Pauline Santa Claus, 83, Pittsburgh.
Sandy wig askew over gray hair, drab clothes and white nurse’s shoes whose odometer turned over long ago, 4’8″, 98-lb. Pauline Waterman is indistinguishable from those among whom she spends her 18-hour days: the poor, the alcoholics, the mentally ill and, more and more, the homeless of Pittsburgh. Waterman is aware of what she looks like. She fixes a visitor with a canny stare. “It isn’t how you look, it’s what you do that counts,” she says. “Am I right?”
She is right. And what Waterman does would seem formidable for anyone half her years. Since some time in the 1960s, long before the word “homeless” crept into the national vocabulary, she has spent each morning cadging tickets from the temples of Pittsburgh culture—Heinz Hall for ballet, opera and the symphony, the Civic Arena for sports, the circus and Ice Capades—then spent each afternoon distributing her take, along with food and clothing, among the city’s estimated 4,500 destitute. Every night at 7 she can be seen weighed down by two shopping bags full of bakery leftovers she is lugging to the Salvation Army. They call her Pauline Santa Claus.
Waterman was born to a middle-class family in Troy, N.Y. “I had a big Buick and a leopard-skin coat,” she says. But ever since she was a Camp Fire Girl and found she liked “earning a bead for every good deed,” giving has seemed more important than getting. And she is undismayed that her Spartan walk-up in the seediest part of the city’s West End is nothing like the style to which she was accustomed before she went into philanthropy full-time. In fact, it is the point. She explains, “Most things bore me. I’ve seen it all, done it all. But these people who have nothing deserve the fun, or at least a taste of it.” To hear her talk of it, her highly successful career as an East Coast promoter and saleswoman was valuable mainly because it provided the contacts she now uses for charity. “Ya gotta have connections,” Pauline Santa Claus says. “And ya gotta be on the alert.”
Chris Sprowal, 51, Philadelphia.
Life has been one heck of a roller coaster ride for Sprowal. A college graduate, in 1981 he had a happy family and a secure job at Tenneco Oil Company in New Orleans. Two years later, after an unsuccessful try at running his own business, Sprowal went broke and his marriage ended. He bought a bus ticket to Philadelphia to find shelter with his brother and sister. After that he ended up living on the streets and in an abandoned building for about a year. “I lost all hope,” he says. Today the 6’4″ Sprowal walks tall again. The upswing began in 1983 when, while homeless himself, he organized Philadelphia’s street people to protest their “biased and demeaning treatment” in city shelters. He attracted such a following that the Philadelphia Committee for the Homeless persuaded him to help develop a model shelter. Now he has created the Philadelphia/Delaware Valley Union for the Homeless, a group of more than 6,000 people who campaign for the rights of the homeless. “People shouldn’t be happy being homeless,” he says. “They should be mad as hell. We’re asking them to take their destinies into their own hands.” He’s the living proof. Recently the natty Sprowal walked into a bus station where homeless hang out. “That’s Chris Sprowal, isn’t it?” a young black man asked. “Man, he’s sure made a lot of himself.”
Ann Connor, 31, Atlanta.
With an old-style, biblical compassion, Ann Connor, a nursing teacher at Emory University who lives in a big suburban house in Decatur, has made the feet of the downtrodden her specialty. Every week the 5’3″ Connor travels to the Open Door Community shelter in Atlanta, where she cares for the tired and often infected feet of the homeless. “They have cuts, scrapes, calluses,” she says. “They walk so much, and most of them are wearing shoes that don’t fit.” A few years ago, as a coordinator of the Oakhurst Baptist Church shelter in Decatur, Connor saw a limping man turned away because of lack of space. She took him home with her and tended to his sore feet. “He had these huge gashes under his ankles where a pair of plastic shoes had dug into him,” she says. Now, with a clean towel over her knee, Connor sits on a stool at her patients’ feet, chatting about their lives as she cuts away at callouses, massages frost-bitten toes and trims ingrown toenails. “I don’t try to judge them,” says Connor (whose husband, A.B. Short, distributes food for the poor). She has five homeless people living in her house. “People sometimes break somewhere in the midst of life and have a hard time pulling themselves back together. So I think God would like me to do this.” He might also like the way she does it: She smiles and laughs as she works.
Lou Gossett Jr., 49, Malibu.
Even the best-intentioned are capable of switching channels when confronted with wrenching fare like an ABC news spot on Good Morning America about the plight of the homeless. But when actor Lou Gossett Jr., while reading a script, saw 8-year-old Sharron Anthony Jones on the program last October, he couldn’t forget the child, who told an interviewer that his one wish was for “something to eat and a place to stay.” Gossett embarked on a search for the child, who had vanished into the streets, found him with the help of a social worker and, in November, brought him to Malibu.
Sharron Jones came to Malibu with the permission of his mother, Rosemary Green, a 28-year-old St. Louis widow with three children who had recently found a barren, unheated apartment after living on the streets. Says Gossett: “I told her I’d like to take Sharron home, put some food in his belly, send him to school and take care of him for a while, and that later on, if it’s all right, I’d adopt him.” She found the notion a trifle surreal—”A movie star trying to help my son?”—but the memories of desperation were fresh. “It was so bad being out on the street,” she explains.
According to Gossett, the outgoing child is adjusting well to life on the five-acre estate, with its indoor swimming pool and cat-and-dog menagerie, and he and the divorced Academy Award winner’s son, Satie Gossett, 11, are great pals. A housekeeper tends to the children when Lou is on the road, and a tutor is working with Sharron until the boy catches up enough to attend school.
Gossett—who believes “children who are hungry and homeless should be the first order of business for America”—feels good about taking Sharron in. “It’s made a more responsible father out of me,” he says. “I realized I wasn’t paying enough attention to my real son, and now they’re both getting a lot of time from me.” The new family has worked out so well that now Gossett has decided to go ahead with the adoption. Says Sharron: “I want to live with Lou.” For her part, Rosemary Green wants something she feels she is unable to give her son. “I hope he can go to school and to college and be able to take care of himself,” she says. “Maybe he can even be a movie star.”
Robert Hayes, 33, New York City.
In 1979 Hayes filed and won a landmark suit: On behalf of the homeless it established the responsibility of New York State to shelter them. In 1980 he founded the New York Coalition for the Homeless. It monitors conditions in shelters, provides soup kitchens, counseling and medical services and has become a model for homeless groups across the country. Then in 1982 Hayes started the National Coalition for the Homeless, which has brought power to people who had been largely ignored. A 1977 graduate of NYU School of Law who was working at a leading Wall Street firm may seem an unlikely champion for the dispossessed, but Hayes claims it was easy to chuck a $60,000-a-year job for a good cause. “Probably my clients are, in some ways, a cut above my old clients,” he says. Last fall Hayes, who gets $32,000 a year for five years from the MacArthur Foundation, filed a suit to establish the rights of homeless children and keep families together. “In three words, the primary cause of homelessness is housing, housing, housing,” he says. “And the solution is housing, housing, housing. Homeless children are the blueprints of another generation of homeless adults.”
Ken Cole, 32, Seattle.
On the mezzanine of the old Morrison Hotel, where captains of industry lounged in leather wing chairs at the turn of the century, Ken Cole sits at a desk, admitting a different clientele. Cole is the executive director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, a shelter in the now-tattered Morrison. “People don’t travel hundreds of miles to sleep on a mat in my place or stand in line for our food,” says Cole, glancing ruefully at the numbers painted on the hardwood floor where 220 sleeping mats will be thrown down at the end of the day. Cole’s establishment is the only one in Seattle to admit just about everyone—drunk or sober, sane or mad, male or female, young or old. The sheer number of people passing through gives the place a Dickensian quality, redolent of alcohol fumes and human odors. Cole receives a $20,000-a-year salary for his 50-hour week at the privately run shelter and countless hours as Seattle’s leading lobbyist and fund raiser for the homeless. “The truth is that I like my job,” says Cole, who turned to social work when he became unhappy with the care received by his mentally ill mother. What depresses him most are trips with his social worker wife, Elizabeth, to a mall. “You work all day surrounded by people who have nothing, and then in a few minutes you’re engulfed by people who are spending money and totally unaware of the other half,” he says.
Sister Liguori Rossner, 43, Pittsburgh.
When Sister Liguori took over Jubilee Kitchen in 1979, the assets of the inner-city soup kitchen totaled $9.36. “I had this idea,” Sister Liguori recalls. “I’d be up in the office doing some spiritual reading and reflection and downstairs people would be getting fed. Well, there hasn’t been much time for reflection.” Instead, the former parochial-school history teacher learned “how to beg” and transformed the kitchen into a thriving center where “guests” can receive medical care, earn high school equivalency certificates and arrange for temporary housing as well as fill their bellies, as 250 homeless do there every day. “She doesn’t represent just a hot meal to the people she serves,” says State Rep. Allen Kukovich. “She is hope.”
Sister Liguori first expanded the soup kitchen by establishing a clothing bank. Next she opened Jubilee Pantry, a “food club” whose members pay $5 a month for a weekly supply of groceries. “The club helps them keep their dignity. They believe that something for nothing is unacceptable.” Then came the Prison Ministry, for incarcerated former Jubilee guests and their relatives; then professional attention for the deinstitutionalized mentally ill. A volunteer helps Jubilee patrons negotiate welfare, medical-benefit and food-stamp forms, and in the summer half a dozen elderly guests receive a stipend to work “Jubilee Farm,” a donated plot of land where some of the kitchen’s produce is grown. The sister’s next project is a permanent day shelter—one that will offer showers, a laundry room, library, lounge and health care office. “We aren’t just doing something nice for people here,” the Companions of the Redeemer nun maintains. “This—and more—is their right.”
Louisa Stark, 50, Phoenix.
Five years ago this city of 863,000 was one of the worst in America for the homeless: Municipal authorities were shutting down soup kitchens, destroying SRO hotels and passing laws forbidding urban nomads to lie or sleep on public property. In 1984 a group of businessmen even formed Phoenix Fights Back, whose members were urged to call the police when they spotted vagrants. Ignoring angry and often anonymous callers, Stark pressured officials and businessmen, and the city has done an about-face. The downtown shelter area now contains a grassy field and a multishelter complex used by 770 homeless. The city spent $1.5 million on the shelter and has contributed $200,000 to the operating budget shared by the county, state and private sector. But Stark is far from satisfied. “Three ‘hots’ and a cot aren’t enough,” the Arizona State anthropology professor explains. “We need to get people back into the economic mainstream.” What’s her role? “Gadfly,” she says, laughing. Bill Sover, a friend who is publisher of the city’s two dailies, disagrees. “She beats you to death with a soft pillow,” he says.
Buddy Gray, 34, Cincinnati.
Thirteen years ago Buddy Gray began combing Cincinnati’s streets to offer homeless people a bed and hot meal at his Alcoholism Drop-in Center. Sometimes in winter, when some were too cold to walk, he carried them in. These days Gray’s shelter houses 200 or more people, only a few of them alcoholics. He says his center overflows with unemployed people who never recovered from the 1982 recession. Though the city tried to upgrade the neighborhood by closing the shelter in the late ’70s, Gray operated without permits and refused to shut down. Today the city is more supportive, but he says the crisis will end only with more low-income housing, a WPA-style jobs program and more halfway houses for the disabled. Gray, who has a staff of 12, receives no pay for his full-time volunteer efforts and does odd jobs to pay for his apartment one block from the shelter. “Buddy married the shelter,” says a friend. But Gray doesn’t like to discuss his sacrifice. “You don’t help the homeless,” he says, “by talking about yourself.”