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Heartless about the homeless?

July 09, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

When it comes to the homeless in the Hagerstown area, how much compassion is enough, and how much is too much?

It's an awful question, really, because it implies that at some point you must stop giving to those in need. But it's a question that much be asked, now that REACH Inc. and Christ's Reformed Church have agreed on a West Franklin Street site for a permanent homeless shelter.

Local governments have been mostly oblivious to the homeless situation until recently, even though REACH - Religious Efforts to Assist and Care for the Homeless - has operated a cold-weather shelter at rotating sites in Hagerstown churches since 1996.

But elected officials were snapped out of their reverie recently when the REACH folks, frustrated by some now-resolved differences with the Christ Reformed building committee, decided to look at a site on East Washington Street, just a short walk from Public Square.

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Though the site issue seems resolved, as this is being written city officials are scheduled to discuss zoning issues related to shelters. You can bet the discussion won't center on how to expand the areas where they can be located.

If you're tempted to write and brand the mayor and council as heartless, you'll have to include me in their camp, at least on this issue. If the center city becomes a magnet only for everyone in the region who has little or no resources, Hagerstown won't have the revenue required to help those in need.

That said, there's little excuse for both city and county governments being as clueless as they have been on this issue, although Councilman Linn Hendershot gets credit for at least reaching out to those who work with the homeless.

That's the good news. The bad news is that even with a new shelter, it will take more than a pat on the head to those care-providers to make progress on the problem.

Both governments must provide funds so that REACH can create a day program, so that the homeless can get counseling and job training. In return, REACH has to make it clear that the price of admission to the day shelter must be a willingness to participate in an improvement program of some sort.

City and county officials must also accept the idea that there's a need for supervised transitional housing. The old YMCA on North Potomac Street once fulfilled this role, providing rooms to men who couldn't afford an apartment or who needed some structure to keep their lives together.

For families, this will be more difficult, but shelter of some sort will be necessary. That's because when the city's rental inspection program gets going, some substandard properties where such folks find shelter now will be off the market for a while - and perhaps for good.

That's a big agenda, but there's a limit to what this community can be expected to do, for a number of reasons.

To revitalize the downtown business core, the city must attract people who have some disposable income and not just because we need a prosperous-looking city.

Without residents who can invest money in homes and support downtown businesses, the city's property tax base, which funds most of the general fund budget, will remain flat, or nearly so. With some growth in the tax base, the city government won't have the cash for programs to aid the homeless.

Homeowners are the lifeblood of any city, as we found out in the early 1990s, when the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond study determined that in Hagerstown, 60 percent of the properties were rentals, versus 40 percent owner-occupied homes. That's just the opposite of what experts say is needed for a thriving community.

This is not an argument for ignoring the homeless or renters who need affordable housing, but for recognizing that if Hagerstown is going to have the cash to provide services to the down-and-out, it needs to attract some people who are up-and-coming as well.

Those residents won't come if the city accepts an endless stream of drug-rehabilitation clinics, halfway houses and the like. Just as this area is unable to provide all the services needed to help every prisoner released from the Roxbury prison complex make the transition to life on the outside, neither can it be expected to assist every homeless person in the region. In both cases, other communities must do their share.

Persuading other political jurisdictions to do that is something that should happen now rather than later, before the new REACH shelter becomes overcrowded with people from elsewhere who've heard that there's help here for people who are down on their luck. If saying that makes me heartless, then I'll just have to accept the label.

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