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Advocates, leaders sleep out for homeless

November 12, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Several dozen people gathered on the edge of City Park Friday night for this year's "Grate" American Sleepout to draw attention to the plight of the homeless in the community.

Community leaders and homeless advocates planned to spend the night in tents and boxes. It is the fifth year the community has held the event.

"We live in a comfort zone. And it's that comfort zone we don't like to come out of," Washington County Commissioner Paul L. Swartz told the crowd.

The weather was not as severe as in some previous years, which have brought heavy rain and snow. But temperatures in the mid-40s were cold enough to give participants an idea of what it is like to sleep outside in winter.

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"Take that and multiply it by 365," said Glenda Helman, chairwoman of the Washington County Task Force on Homelessness. "I can't do it, can you?"

Helman said she expected 35 to 40 people to remain throughout the night. A breakfast at the Community Action Council was scheduled for this morning.

Helman said homeless shelters in the county house about 140 people. She estimated 20 to 30 additional people have no shelter.

Cheryl Walkley, the executive director of the Community Action Council, said 54 percent of the people who use CAC services are working.

"They have jobs and still can't pay the rent or keep the lights on or feed their children," said Walkley, who was one four people who participated in the first Sleepout five years ago.

Rob Hess, executive director of the Center for Poverty Solutions, called for legislation guaranteeing a "livable wage" to low-skilled workers - especially those who work for companies that benefit from government tax breaks and contracts.

"It is time after five years we start moving toward solutions so we don't have to come out here and sleep in boxes next year," he said. "What we lack here is the political will."

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