Sleepout brings attention to homeless

November 16, 1996


Staff Writer

If the Rev. Ellen Hurwitz had really been homeless, she probably wouldn't have had a "burn barrel" fire to keep her warm on Friday night, during the second annual Grate American Sleepout in Hagerstown's City Park. She wouldn't have had pizza to eat or cappuccino to drink.

The Sleepout is part of a national effort to draw attention to the plight of the homeless in this country. Four people participated here last year.

Hurwitz and 19 others - six of them children - stuck it out on a frigid night in Hagerstown City Park this year, sleeping in cardboard refrigerator boxes donated to them by a local business.


The group included representatives from several churches and social service agencies, a deejay, a corporate official and his daughter, and a representative from the Maryland Department of Health and Human Services, who came from Baltimore.

The temperature dipped into the teens, giving the group a real idea of what it's like to sleep without shelter in winter. "Some of the girls kept getting up because it was too cold to sleep, but they didn't go home," Hurwitz said of the children. "This morning the cars all had frost on them, and the bottled water we had with us was partially frozen."

While it wasn't comfortable by any means, there was a sense of camaraderie, and Hurwitz said the group was lucky to get community support a real homeless person would not receive.

They had a port-a-potty. The ladies at Potomac Towers made them a kettle of soup. At midnight, someone came by with cappuccino, and others with pizza and donuts.

"We had it pretty plush," said Hurwitz, who is president of the Washington County Task Force on Homelessness and a staff member of St. John's Shelter for the Homeless.

More importantly, the group's efforts touched others who came by with donations for the four homeless shelters in Washington County. "Several cars stopped by with clothing and food for the homeless," Hurwitz said. "At midnight, a man came by and gave us four nice coats."

A carful of young people who saw the "box city" at the park stopped their car and asked what the group was doing, Hurwitz said. "We told them we were trying to bring attention to the homeless," she said. "They gave us $6."

"It was moving to see so many people come and help - and these weren't necessarily rich people," Hurwitz said.

Locally, Hurwitz said there are now an estimated 100 homeless in Washington County, and there's only room for 60 to 70 of them in local shelters. "Between a half to a third of those in our shelters on any given night are children," she said.

Hurwitz said the county's newest shelter, a cold-weather shelter for adults, will open at 7 p.m. tonight and be open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. daily through March 15.

For the first two weeks, the shelter will be in Christ Reformed Church on West Franklin Street in Hagerstown. After that other churches will host the shelter. The location will change every two weeks. Shelters will be manned by volunteers, and be patrolled by a professional security officer, Hurwitz said.

The cold weather shelter fills a gap, in that homeless people with a drinking problem will be allowed to spend the night there. People who are actively drinking are not allowed in the county's other shelters, Hurwitz said.

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