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Advocates hope to raise awareness at 'sleepout'

November 14, 1998|By LAURA ERNDE

Cheryl Walkley had been feeling lackadaisical about her fourth night of sleeping in a cardboard box to raise awareness of Hagerstown's homeless problem.

In past years she and other homeless advocates had weathered 14-degree cold, six inches of snow on the ground and a constant threat of rain.

Besides, the plight of the city's homeless seemed to be under control with this month's opening of a permanent cold weather shelter.

But as fate would have it, something happened to change Walkley's attitude just before the executive director of the Community Action Council left work on Friday.

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A woman and her disabled child came to her needing a place to stay. After two hours of wrangling, Walkley found a temporary solution to the family's problem.

"I just couldn't stand the thought of that child on the street tonight," she said. "It was very empowering. It gave me the strength to come out here. We've got to change this."

While homeless advocates have made great strides, their efforts could crumble without many volunteers and donations, she said.

On any given night, organizations such as the Salvation Army, CASA, the Community Action Council, St. John's Family Shelter, the Union Rescue Mission and the Religious Effort to Assist and Care for Homeless people make sure that 150 homeless people have a place to sleep, said Glenda Helman, chairwoman of the county's Task Force on Homelessness.

About 37 percent of those sheltered are children and 33 percent have mental illnesses, she said.

About a dozen people were planning to stay all night at City Park in the "Grate" American Sleepout to experience what it's like to be homeless, Helman said.

They collected toiletries and clothing to be distributed at the new Washington County Cold Weather Shelter, 148 W. Franklin St., which will be open through April 11.

As temperatures dropped into the 40s, they gathered around campfires built inside two barrels.

"A homeless person has to face the cold. There's no place to get warm. There's no refrigerator to go to. There's not hot coffee to grab. You experience the hopelessness that person feels," said the Rev. Mark Sandell.

Sandell told the group he could have worn his insulated hiking boots, but chose to wear his worn tennis shoes.

"Even these seem well clad for some homeless people," said Sandell, who has seen homeless people whose feet were so calloused they appeared to be wearing shoes.

"They're the great forgotten people in our society and I think that's the true tragedy of our society," he said.

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