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Putting a face on Hagerstown's homeless

June 29, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

Doug Bliss doesn't look like he's homeless. The 43-year-old's brown beard is well-trimmed, his blue eyes are clear and he's definitely not pushing around a shopping cart full of junk, babbling to someone who's not there.

But before the sun goes down, Bliss walks to a wooded area, retrieves his tent and sleeping bag from their hiding place and beds down by himself, with only the sounds of birds and other animals for company.

"It's just me and the animals. I don't bother them and they don't bother me," he said.

There's no real advantage for Bliss in talking to me, except to combat the "bag lady" stereotype of the homeless and to help Katy Costa-Sweeney, a volunteer at the REACH shelter in Hagerstown, explain how tough it is for those on the street to get back to some sort of normal life.

A carpenter by trade, Bliss said that before he became homeless, he'd never worked for less than $10 per hour, even when he was a teen-ager. He was happily married and the proud father of a new son - until the child was diagnosed with a malformed heart.

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Open-heart surgery was needed, but Bliss said the child died on the operating table. The baby was just 53 days old.

As often happens in such cases, the marriage didn't survive, in part because the baby's passing triggered manic-depression in Bliss. He came to Hagerstown, he said, to live with a friend who was renting an apartment. In exchange for being allowed to stay there, Bliss said he was doing some repair work for the landlord.

Then his friend got into trouble and the landlord decided everybody had to go.

"The first night we spent on the street. The second night we went to the Rescue Mission," he said.

Then Bliss came to the REACH shelter, where Costa-Sweeney met him and is helping him try to put his life back together again.

Bliss said that compared to most of the local service agencies, with their take-a-number, fill-out-this-form system of doing business, REACH's volunteers really know how to get things done. But until that process is complete, he's mostly on his own.

He occasionally gets an opportunity to stay with somebody who has a place, but says he's picky about whose hospitality he accepts. Since he's on anti-depressants, he doesn't want to be around anyone who drinks heavily or who does drugs.

"I don't drink. I don't do drugs," he said.

At this point readers may be asking a couple of questions: Why doesn't he just go back home, wherever that may be, and let his family take care of him? And if he's an experienced carpenter, why doesn't he just get a job, since construction seems to be booming right now?

There is really no "home" to go back to, he said, because when he was growing up, his father worked for IBM and was transferred every three or four years. What family remains is scattered all over the country, and though he doesn't say it, there's no money for travel.

Getting a job is tough, Costa-Sweeney said, because Bliss must first be cleared by doctors to return to work, because he was previously certified as disabled to get a monthly, $185 check.

He would lose that grant if he got a job, she said, adding that there are other obstacles.

"He can't get a job because he doesn't have a Maryland ID and he can't get a Maryland ID without a home address," she said, adding that a post office box won't do.

And Costa-Sweeney said, to get any sort of ID you must have a birth certificate. For those born elsewhere, that process can take months, unless you pay $19 for Federal Express.

To get that street address, he can get Section 8 housing and has been approved for a voucher that will allow him $505 a month. But almost everything that's available costs more than that, Costa-Sweeney said, not including utilities. Bliss will have to find an apartment renting in the $400-$450 range, so that he'll have enough left to pay utilities before he finds a job and cashes his first paycheck.

Asked what sort of happy ending he'd write to his life's story, Bliss said "To be working, making good money. To get back to a plausible lifestyle."

The stereotypes and the horrified reactions of some citizens to people they don't know aren't helpful, Bliss and Costa-Sweeney agree.

"That's half the problem. Nobody knows who we are and what we are. Each of us is different. You have all these facilities here in Hagerstown. We're not a threat to anybody," he said.

"The ones I made friends with, we all have our 'hiccups.' For some it's alcohol and drugs, but those are the exception, not the rule," Bliss said.

Anyone who even threatens violence is barred from the shelter, Costa-Sweeney said, adding that it happens very seldom.

With the help of a network of Hagerstown churches, REACH - Religious Effort to Assist and Care for the Homeless - runs a shelter that operates from late October until early April.

When April came this year, Costa-Sweeney said she had 40 clients she was working with and decided she couldn't just let them fend for themselves. And so she does what she can do, working as an unpaid volunteer out of Trinity Lutheran Church on North Potomac Street in Hagerstown. Yes, it would be nice to be paid, she said, but for now she'll settle for a little understanding from everyone who shudders and refers to her clients as "those people."

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