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Until shoe factory is redone, homeless day shelter needed

January 27, 2003

When you're out of work with no place to live and the cold-weather shelter doesn't open until 7 p.m., what do you do on a day when the temperature dips below freezing? You go to the library, where it's warm and you can read a book.

But now officials of the Washington County Free Library say the growing influx of homeless is intimidating other patrons of its downtown Hagerstown branch. Some other place must be found for the homeless to congregate during the day, they say. We agree, because we want to see them get help they can't get sitting in the library.

In February of 2001, a local task force on homelessness met and its members agreed that there was a need for a day shelter in the county. The long-range plan is for REACH - Religious Efforts to Assist and Care for the Homeless - to provide a day shelter in the old Cannon Shoe Factory building on West Franklin Street, which is being renovated by Christ's Reformed Church.

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But that project was put in jeopardy in August 2002 when two potential tenants - the Washington County Housing Authority and the Community Action Council - decided to pull out of the project. The church is actively seeking new partners for the $3.2 million effort, but hasn't come up with any yet.

REACH could operate a day shelter at another site until the project is done. City and county officials should help them find that space, for two reasons.

The library isn't designed as a shelter and while the homeless can sit and read, there really isn't much else to do. A fully staffed day shelter could offer a variety of services, including job training, health screening, addictions counseling and the like.

Some will argue that making a comfortable place for the homeless will only encourage more homeless people to relocate to Washington County. That might be true if the day shelter were just a lounge with no programs.

What we and the officials of REACH envision is a shelter with programs which will force the homeless to deal with their problems, whether they be drug addiction or a lack of job training. Until the old shoe factory is renovated, city and county officials need to help REACH find some temporary quarters.

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