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Where to put the homeless?

June 12, 2003

Should Hagerstown prohibit the construction of a homeless shelter in its downtown area? Councilman Lewis Metzner says it's unacceptable, but given the funds that have already been spent to build one, it's a little late in the day to object, not to mention the difficulty REACH would have in finding another neighborhood willing to accept it.

Plans for a permanent home for the cold weather shelter operated by REACH - Religious Efforts to Assist and Care for the Homeless - have been in the works for several years. The church has spent more than $1 million to turn the old Cannon Shoe Factory on West Franklin Street into a shelter and offices for other non-profit groups.

Some groups that originally signed on have pulled out of the arrangement, putting the church in a tight spot. In the meantime, there's a need for a day shelter for the homeless, many of whom have made the Washington County Free Library's downtown branch their winter headquarters.

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When this issue arose in January, The Herald-Mail took the position that while the library can provide warmth and books, it doesn't have other things the homeless need, like job training, health screening, addictions counseling and the like.

What mystifies us is why REACH apparently wants to re-think the Franklin Street site. REACH officials said it was only a back-up plan, but Metzner's comments are mild compared to what REACH will hear if it tries to move to any other site.

The issue is moot for now since the building has been sold to someone else, according to a city planner. But the need for a day and night shelter will continue.

Why? Because as the city's rental-inspection program gears up, some apartments now occupied by the working poor will have to be vacated for renovation, leaving those folks temporarily without quarters. Metzner and other members of the council will have to decide whether they want those folks in a shelter, receiving services, or out on the sidewalk, begging for help.

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