ON THIS PALM SUNDAY morning, Alethea Booze looks a little tired.
She's got good reason. She was up at 2 a.m. to stuff the turkey and shove it into the oven, start one pot of collard greens with smoked turkey and another of sauerkraut.
Now, at 10 a.m., chicken is frying and potatoes await mashing as Booze and her next-door neighbor, Robin Floyd, lay out large enamelware pots and old aluminum pans full of food on the kitchen table.
This is a weekly event that started decades ago. Booze, 72, has continued it since her mother, Elizabeth, died in 2004. What started as a post-church meal for her family grew into a neighborhood ritual that can feed two dozen.
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Few health clinics or primary care doctors are located nearby. The closest pharmacy is a CVS that was firebombed and looted last year during the wave of protests and unrest following the death in police custody of Freddie Gray; it was closed for almost a year. Sandtown residents have some of the highest rates of diabetes, mental illness, injuries and poisonings in the city, and they're more likely to be hospitalized with serious illnesses than residents in any other part of the city. Hospital readmission rates in the city are at their highest in the two West Baltimore hospitals that serve them.
'She knows how to get things done'
But to Booze, who lives on Social Security and the pension she earned by staying at her job for 40 years, this embattled neighborhood is the only home she's ever known. She grew up in one of four houses her parents purchased around World War II, moving from one of them to another across the street, where she lives now.
A breast cancer survivor, Booze suffered a stroke a decade ago while playing the slots at an Atlantic City casino, which left her with a pronounced limp and made driving impossible. To monitor her high blood pressure and arthritis, she'll ask a relative to drive her several miles to see doctors. Once in a while, she'll arrange to take a state-run "mobility bus," which delivers people who are older and those with handicaps to medical offices. Some of her neighbors walk several blocks to a subway station to get to downtown hospitals and medical offices.
Shopping for food is another challenge. Two Sandtown groceries within walking distance of Booze's house have closed within the last decade. To get the fresh food she needs for herself and the many people she feeds during the week, she asks relatives to drive her to a supermarket two miles away.
The city health department provides 250,000 meals to impoverished older residents each year, and it has also worked with several nonprofits to open pop-up markets—"virtual supermarkets" that make deliveries to older people—and a program geared to improve the offerings in Baltimore's many corner grocery stores, which seem to sell mostly junk food, cigarettes and lottery tickets.
'I'm happy right where I am'
From her front door, Booze sees it all. She was among the eyewitnesses to the arrest of Freddie Gray in April 2015. She shouted at police to take Gray to the hospital instead of putting him in a police van. "She'll yell at the kids in the neighborhood when they're doing wrong, and she'll yell at the police too," says Luther Booze, 55, her oldest son who is a Baltimore superintendent of highways. "She's very tough."
When her mother was ill, Booze cared for her as she lay on a hospital bed in the dining room. When Booze had her stroke, the bed reappeared as family and her neighbors all made sure she had what she needed. "Nobody in my family ends up in a nursing home," Booze says firmly.
To her family, Booze's caregiving mirrors the cycle-of-help philosophy she has instilled into the family, and her neighborhood.
"I don't want to live beyond my needs. I don't need that stress," she says. "I tell my family, 'I'm happy right where I am.' My father worked so we could have these houses. And there's too much here I'd miss."