BALTIMORE – The air temperature is dropping quickly around the Salvation Army distribution center on Buena Vista Road, where Frank and Betty Russell stand hatless and gloveless, waiting for the food distribution van in which they have volunteered every Tuesday night for the past fifteen years.
A bright white truck – heavy and squat as an ambulance, with a window in the side like a hot dog vendor’s – the van has seen some wear and tear. After it rattles and coughs to life, driver Luther James opens the double back doors and the Russells step from the cold night into the bright, warm interior.
In a city that homeless advocates say has more than 3,000 people sleeping on the street each night, the “Feedmore” van, as it is called, is the only service offering meals to Baltimore’s homeless after the shelters close for the night, Frank Russell says For the people it serves, it’s also often a source for warm clothes, hats, gloves, and a few encouraging words from Frank and Betty.
“We’ve long been fans of the Feedmore van,” says Kevin Lindamood, a spokesman for outreach organization Healthcare for the Homeless. “I think it meets and unmet need.”
The Feedmore van’s route takes it to some of the poorest and roughest neighborhoods in Baltimore – six stops in all – where those who have chosen not to go into a shelter for the night gather.
Tito Norris, 46, is one of those staying outside on a cold, late-November night. A cocaine addict who has lived on the streets for years, Norris says he doesn’t want to go into the shelters, even though the temperature may fall below freezing. Most shelters close their doors by 7 p.m. and Norris knows he can’t use drugs while inside.
Tonight he sleeps in the plastic-bag fortress outside St. Vincent de Paul Church just east of downtown Baltimore that Frank and Betty Russell call “the park.” It’s the van’s first feeding stop.
While her husband dishes chili and macaroni, Betty Russell places a foam tray and a steaming cup of hot chocolate into Tito’s hands.
James, a quiet but friendly man who drives a truck during the day and the van six nights a week, stands by the window to make sure everyone is calm and orderly. Usually, Frank Russell says, he doesn’t have to worry about trouble.
Nearly everyone is polite, Betty Russell says. They take the food and drink with a “Thank you, ma’am” or a “God bless.”
Though he usually stays inside the van now, Frank Russell used to go outside among the men with his sketchpad, drawing them as they stood in line.
He was the one who first suggested he and Betty volunteer with Feedmore.
The couple wanted something they could do together. Betty Russell helped at My Sister’s Place, a women’s shelter, while working on her doctoral dissertation in 1988. Her husband, an artist by training, served meals at Christopher’s Place in exchange for the chance to use the men in the shelter as subjects for his painting.
People are his favorite subjects, Frank Russell says.
The walls of the apartment he shares with his wife in the Village of Cross Keys are still covered with his portraits on canvas. He painted one in the very place at St. Vincent de Paul where Tito Norris waits for a dinner he can take back among the plastic bags and abandoned shopping carts.
The painting is done from a unique perspective: A lean-to shelter made of old doors frames the picture. Through the cracks, a white-bearded man stares at the hot dogs he roasts in a makeshift oven. It is a picture of despair, but Russell’s skill has nonetheless lent the painting a feeling of cheery warmth in the fire’s pervasive glow.
The man inside the lean-to doesn’t look sick, starved, or deranged, just a bit grim.
It’s like the time that the Russells took a volunteer from their former church in Carroll County, a place Frank Russell describes, unashamedly, as “white flight country.”
The churchgoer gasped when she saw the van’s first customers, Betty Russell recalls with a laugh. “They’re just like us!” Betty remembers the woman saying.
A man called Henry appears in several of Frank Russell’s sketches; he even graced a Christmas card that Russells, both devout Episcopalians, sent to their elected officials several years ago.
“They don’t like to be photographed,” says Betty Russell, “but they like to be drawn and sketched.”
Though Henry has disappeared from the streets, different men, women and children have taken his place.
It is the children that affect the Russells most.
One of the van’s stops is a public housing project where most of the customers are children. None of them is homeless, Frank Russell says, but with often-absent and painfully poor parents, none is likely to pass up a free meal, either.
Some of the kids wear flimsy polos, sometimes undershirts; many are barefoot on the freezing pavement.
All of the hats, scarves, and gloves went to the men in the park. Frank Russell and Luther promise they will bring coats and jackets from the warehouse next week.
Pushing and heckling, the children crowd the window. Not one is over 14 or 15. An older teen throws a rock at the van.
With a bowl of chili in the hands of everyone who wants one, the van moves off to its final stop, a shelter called the Oasis Station on Gay Street. Shelter management allows the men to leave go around the corner and get something to eat when the van arrives.
Tonight, however, everyone is inside. Another church charity is giving a turkey dinner for the shelter.
“During the holidays, everyone’s out, and everyone’s in the giving mood,” says James, not smiling. But in the deep cold of January and February, when the most of the churches stop giving dinners, Frank and Betty Russell, Luther and the Feedmore van will still be making rounds. – 30 -12012006