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Shelter not a 'warehouse for homeless'

June 22, 2003|by Katy Costa-Sweeney

To the editor:

About two years ago, I interviewed Chief Arthur Smith, Hagerstown Chief of Police, for a paper I was writing for my undergrad work at University of Maryland. The topic of the nine-page paper was crime prevention.

Chief Smith was very positive and very proud of a program he had spearheaded in Baltimore that literally transformed a neighborhood due to an extremely successful crime prevention program. Smith had great hopes of bringing a similar program to Hagerstown.

And what is my point, you ask? REACH, Inc. has just completed its seventh year of service to the homeless population housing them in the Cold Weather Shelter. REACH's purpose is not to "warehouse the homeless" but to help all those who fall between the cracks of our "system."

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REACH is building a program that will be as winning (or more) than chief Smith's neighborhood crime watch program. Last season REACH created a program called "Faith Community Outreach."

The shelter was open for 23 weeks last season. Each Wednesday, a group from the community came into the shelter and explained to guests what services were available in the community. These agencies included the Community Action Council, Alcohol Anonymous, Goodwill, Maryland Job Service, Labor Ready, Washington County Health Department, Western Maryland Consortium, Turning Point, Office of Consumer Affairs, Veterans Affairs and Hagerstown Housing Authority. Most of these folks came in on their own time in the evening to talk to the shelter population, which speaks for itself. The program was extremely successful.

REACH also put together a team of Community Resource Volunteers. These volunteers are akin to Hagerstown's SWAT team. They targeted each guest with one on one meetings to assess the most pressing needs to make the guests as self-sufficient as possible.

This team of volunteers gave the guests information to work "within the system." Information on things almost all of us take for granted, acquiring food, medication, clothing and a home.

When the shelter closed on April 6, Terri Baker, the executive director gave me permission to create a homeless outreach program. The Trinity Lutheran Church was kind enough to let me use the Social Help Center's office so that REACH could continue meeting the needs of the homeless and near homeless population.

The outreach office is open four hours a week. In that time, an average of 12.7 clients are seen each week, 6.68 per day, 3.5 per hour. In the 10 weeks that the office has been open, 127 clients have been served.

What exactly does this office do? This program is an extension of the shelter program. We make sure that the basic human needs are met, food, clothing, housing, medications, training, education and job searches. We offer clients an address to be used for job applications and mail. We offer a phone number so that they can receive messages from employers, doctors, landlords, etc.

A person's most basic needs must be met before they can be spiritually enlightened or transformed into a pillar of society.

The agencies that we work and interact with are DSS, CAC, St. John's Shelter, Union Rescue Mission, Salvation Army, CASA, DORS, Maryland Job Service, Western Maryland Consortium, Behavioral Health, Community Free Clinic, Walnut Street Clinic, Hagerstown Housing Authority, Potomac Case Management, AA, NA, Goodwill, Literacy Council, Washington County Council of Churches Social Help Center and Magnolia Square Pharmacy.

Now I ask you - where are all of these places located? Downtown. The idea of locating a shelter out of that area will not do a dern thing except exacerbate the problem. How would anyone expect the homeless population to receive services and become productive members of society when they cannot get to an agecny that will help them?

This idea of sending the homeless off to some remote location reminds one of the white supremacist's ridiculously stupid idea of sending all the blacks back to Africa. And it shows as much ignorance and prejudice.

As an unofficial ombudsman, my clients see me as a Godsend. This is not because I am some left-wing, bleeding-heart liberal who wants to change the world, but because I disseminate something that we all lack - information.

As a college graduate, I find that trying to get information about what is available in the community an exceedingly confusing and exhausting task. Most agencies have severe intra-agency communication problems. One may talk to a caseworker and get information totally and completely opposite of what another caseworker or supervisor propagates.

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