Homeless surviving in and around city

June 29, 2003|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

Van Jordan made the discovery on Wednesday: giant gashes in his faded red tent - his home.

Jordan, 40, thinks a limb fell on it, but the nylon is torn end to end in a few places, as if from a knife.

The tent, which he bought 10 years ago for his daughter, is ruined. It was his only shelter; he has no other home.

And he has no other plan. But he has at least two more weeks at the Hagerstown Union Rescue Mission to think before he's back outside, on his own.


Another setback, another sigh.

"You live day by day out here, brother," he said.

Between 30-day stays at the Rescue Mission, home for Jordan is a wooded patch overlooking Antietam Creek.

Hagerstown's shelter network for the downtrodden includes the Rescue Mission for men and the Salvation Army and Citizens Assisting and Sheltering the Abused, or CASA, for women and children. St. John's Shelter takes in families.

From October to April, the Religious Effort to Assist and Care for the Homeless, or REACH, operates a cold weather shelter in local churches from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. REACH cared for 387 people last winter, up from 315 the previous winter.

Three motels in and around Hagerstown's downtown - the Dagmar, the Holiday and the Venice Inn - offer discounted rates so Community Action Council can put up other needy people for longer periods.

Partly because shelter space is limited and partly because of pride, some homeless people stay outdoors. Robert Shade, a homeless outreach specialist for Turning Point of Washington County, said there's a "honeycomb" of camps in and around Hagerstown.

Vagabond camps

Shade visits area shelters and soup kitchens to reach people who need help. He also walks through the vagabond camps, sometimes bringing food staples and water to people sleeping out.

He agreed to take a reporter and a photographer along to see the conditions. The locations, which are on private property, must stay secret, he said. That's part of the compact of trust he has developed with the homeless.

The campers include:

  • An American Indian woman from Nevada and a man from Pennsylvania, both in their 40s. They sleep near each other on a blanket and some flattened cardboard boxes. She was evicted from her apartment for having a man stay overnight with her, Shade said.

  • A woman in her early 20s and her 2-year-old son. Their mattress is a worn Oriental rug. Articles of clothing are scattered about.

    "She's pregnant again," Shade said.

  • A man who sleeps on a bedspread stretched across surplus railroad ties and whose bathroom is a white bucket.

Each camper has a secluded nest, usually deep in dense brush.

Late one recent afternoon, the field was desolate. The homeless people were out and about, seeking help, finding food, collecting deposit cans or copper wire for extra money. They left their meager possessions behind at their campsites.

Except Steve and Hank.

After slipping through a fence gate left ajar, Shade stopped at their adopted home, a small abandoned stone building. He said hello, kneeled and pulled off his backpack.

Shade handed them water, soup noodles, granola and fruit bars, raisins and instant oatmeal. Supposedly, it will carry them over for a week.

Steve and Hank thanked him, especially for the water.

Shade later said that Steve is a Vietnam veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. Hank sticks with Steve. They stay in the abandoned building because "mental illness won't let them come out," Shade said.

Who are they?

Who are the homeless? Where do they stay? Where are they from?

The questions have gotten more attention lately during a dispute about whether a shelter belongs in the heart of downtown.

According to the nonprofit Center for Poverty Solutions, there were 1,929 homeless people in Washington County in 1999. The estimate was derived from agency reports.

Sherry Neil, a case management coordinator for Washington County Community Action Council, said the number was 22 percent higher - 2,347 - last year.

David Jordan, executive director of Community Action Council, said coming up with a single label for who the homeless are is impossible. They are men and women, educated and uneducated, healthy and sick, lucid and mentally ill, motivated and lazy, addicted and sober.

"There's no face to the issue," Jordan said.

Hagerstown City Councilman Lewis Metzner touched off a debate on homelessness when he said at a June 11 council meeting that it's unacceptable for REACH to put a homeless shelter downtown.

REACH wants to open a shelter in the former Cannon Shoe Factory on West Franklin Street. On Wednesday, Christ's Reformed Church, which owns the building, apparently struck a deal with REACH.

In recent months, as REACH waited on its fate, it looked at other options. One was a building on East Washington Street. That was the site to which Metzner objected.

Metzner has clarified his position. He said he meant a shelter doesn't belong in the "central core" of downtown, within a block of Public Square, not downtown in the broader sense.

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