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Trying to stay warm

Complaints received about the homeless using library as a shelter from the cold

Complaints received about the homeless using library as a shelter from the cold

January 24, 2003|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

Freddy Hepfer, like some other area homeless people, has been spending his days in the Washington County Free Library.

Because the REACH cold weather shelter is closed from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, Hepfer, 19, said he spends time in the heated library, reading whatever strikes his interest on a given day.

But the library's executive director says the presence of the homeless in the library has sparked some complaints.

"They are using the library as a day center," Mary Baykan, said. "It is a migrant population that is literally roosting in our place."

Baykan said from 25 to 35 homeless people have been keeping warm at the library in recent weeks, sometimes taking up all of the chairs and tables, leaving regular patrons without a place to sit.

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"Some patrons say they are intimidated and frightened and disinclined to come, which is problematic," Baykan said.

Library officials have asked the City of Hagerstown to help find a place for the homeless to go during the day.

City staff will meet with library officials and others to see if a daytime site for the homeless can be found, City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman said Thursday.

A Cold Weather Shelter run by REACH - Religious Effort to Assist and Care for the Homeless - provides lodging and food for the homeless from October to April but it requires its users to be out of the shelter from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

The shelter currently rotates among area churches. It will have a permanent site on West Franklin Street next to Christ's Reformed Church when renovations are completed to the former Cannon Shoe Factory.

In the meantime, the shelter is helping the homeless only 50 percent of the time, Baykan said.

Terri Baker, executive director of REACH, said she would love for there to be a place for the homeless to stay during the day but there currently is no such place in Washington County.

Baykan said she fears some library patrons may stay away if the homeless remain in the library.

"It makes it unpleasant to visit the library," agreed Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith, who has met with library officials about the problem.

Doug Bliss, who said he has been homeless for about two weeks, said he understands the library patrons' reaction to the homeless. He said if the roles were reversed, he would feel the same way.

"I think there needs to be a place for the people to go," said Bliss.

Bliss said he usually is at the library from 5:30 p.m., after he gets off work, until 7 p.m., when the REACH shelter reopens for the night.

Bliss said he would rather not stay at the library if it is going to cause problems. If there were another place to go during the day, Bliss said he would go there instead.

Hepfer, who said he has been homeless for about nine months, said he is looking for a job and is willing to do any kind of work.

In the meantime, the homeless man said, he gets to the library when it opens, and stays until it closes.

"I try to stay pretty positive," Hepfer said. As for the time spent reading books, he said, "Knowledge is power."

This is not a problem unique to Hagerstown, Baykan said. Most libraries in urban areas attract the homeless. But the number at the library is larger than usual this year, partially because the weather has been colder, she said.

The library has a patron code of conduct, which prohibits visitors from falling asleep. They also must be using a library service, such as reading.

Hepfer said he has on occasion fallen asleep at the library, but when that happens a library staff member knocks on the desk and wakes him.

Occasionally a patron will become unruly and will be asked to leave, Baykan said. They usually do so voluntarily, she said.

Baykan said her heart goes out to the homeless people who are down on their luck.

But she said she thinks there should be places other than the library where the homeless can go to get out of the cold.

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