Shelter moves from church to church

December 02, 1996


Staff Writer

Harry, whose grizzled appearance belies his 53 years, spends his days huddled in doorways trying to keep warm.

Homeless for the last 31/2 years, Harry used to spend nights seeking shelter from the elements in a narrow alley between buildings in downtown Hagerstown or, when possible, at a friend's house.

But this winter Harry, who declined to give his last name, has found a warm, safe and inviting place to spend the nights, even if his cot will move around town a bit.

The Washington County Cold Weather Homeless Shelter, which opened Nov. 17 at Christ's Reformed Church at 130 W. Franklin St., rotated Sunday to its second church, North Side Mennonite at 716 N. Locust St.


Organizers say the shelter, which moves to a different church every two weeks, is operating smoothly and sheltered between 11 and 13 people most nights last week. It is open 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. every day until mid-March.

"It's a heck of a nice shelter," Harry said. "The only thing they're trying to do there is to keep you out of the cold ... They treat us like angels."

Some of the men who use the shelter helped move it to North Side Mennonite Church, James Martin, the shelter manager there, said.

Carrol Springer, a social worker and assistant director of adult, child and family services in Washington County for the Department of Social Services, said she helped start a similar cold weather shelter in Frederick County about six years ago.

That shelter is now serving more than 40 people a night, Springer said.

On any given night in Washington County at least 100 people are homeless and 35 to 50 of them sleep outside, according to estimates by area service agencies, volunteers and recent government studies.

This new shelter, organized by volunteers from local churches, the Washington County Taskforce on Homelessness, and REACH, which stands for the Religious Effort to Assist and Care for the Homeless, was designed as "the shelter of last resort for people who can't get into other shelters because they're full or they don't meet the admittance requirements," Springer said.

Existing shelters in the county tend to serve specific populations: CASA and the Salvation Army serve women and children; the Community Action Council and St. John's Shelter serve families and the Union Rescue Mission shelters unemployed men but generally doesn't take anyone who has been drinking that day.

"Who really has been left out in the cold is homeless, single men, especially if they have an addictions problem or are mentally ill," Springer said.

Several officials of other shelters in Hagerstown welcomed the new addition.

"It really fills a need in the community," said the Rev. Ellen Hurwitz, case manager at St. John's Shelter for the Homeless. "The shelters which we have now each have a place but there was a gap."

On opening night the Hagerstown shelter served two men, recruited off the streets by Springer. "They were very appreciative of having some place to go," Springer said.

Since then "it's grown every night," she said.

Shelter clients sign in and then are apprised of the rules, which include no smoking, drinking, fighting or weapons in the shelter, she said.

Everyone is issued a blanket, pillow, towel, wash cloth and sanitary items like soap if needed, Springer said. Then they get a cup of hot soup and a piece of bread to eat.

There are magazines and newspapers to read and cards to play but most of the shelter clients go to bed early, she said.

"They're tired either from working or being out on the street," Springer said.

Some of the men who use the shelter work part-time or at temporary jobs but they haven't earned enough money yet to afford housing, said Judy Bowman, shelter manager at Christ's Reformed Church.

So far close to 100 volunteers from the community have been trained to help out at the shelter, Springer said.

Sixty-five volunteers helped out in the first two weeks, Bowman said.

The Cookie Jar bakery has donated leftover pastries and doughnuts to the shelter, which are distributed along with hot coffee in the morning, Springer said.

"The saddest part is when they would say to us at 7 a.m. `where do we go now,'" Bowman said.

Two Department of Social Services social workers visit the shelter twice a week to answer questions about jobs and available services, she said.

Springer estimates that the five month shelter will cost a total of about $20,000 to operate, with the main expense being the security guard on duty each night.

"We don't have quite enough money to fund this for the whole time," she said, so the shelter has applied to the City of Hagerstown for funds.

The county has donated use of about 20 cots to the shelter.

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