Zoning changes would restrict homeless shelters

August 14, 2003|by SCOTT BUTKI

Hagerstown's police chief, Councilwoman Penny May Nigh and others spoke at a public hearing Wednesday in support of a proposal to tighten the zoning restrictions for future homeless shelters and to require that they be open around the clock.

No one at the Hagerstown Planning Commission public hearing spoke against the proposed zoning text amendments, which would require homeless shelters to be open 24 hours a day with constant supervision.

Shelters in the city currently do not have to be open during the day.

Under the proposed zoning change, a homeless shelter would have to be at least 1,500 feet from the Washington County Free Library's downtown facility. City officials said the distance is equivalent to about three or four blocks.


Nigh said she would like the distance to be even greater.

The proposed changes follow complaints last winter about homeless from a cold-weather shelter run by REACH - Religious Effort to Assist and Care for the Homeless.

The REACH shelter does not have a permanent home, but rotates from church to church, providing lodging and food for the homeless from October to April.

The REACH shelter requires those who stay there to be out of the shelter from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

During cold weather, some homeless people have spent their days in the library on South Potomac Street, prompting complaints and concerns from patrons and library officials.

Library Assistant Director Kathleen O'Connell read a statement from Library Director Mary Baykan saying it has become increasingly difficult for the library to provide services during the winter because of the presence of homeless people.

The library staff, mostly female, have felt harassed by the mostly male homeless population there, O'Connell said. Some feel patrons have been asked for money, others said they were ogled, she said.

Hagerstown Police Lt. William C. Wright III, commander of the new Downtown Squad, said he would not let his children use the library unescorted because of the presence and behavior of the homeless who hang out there.

Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith questioned whether REACH really is helping the homeless, and giving them resources they need, by providing shelter only at night.

"I do not know how much of a favor you are doing by warehousing them," Smith said.

Smith said downtown Hagerstown is at a crossroads in development and he thinks the presence of homeless residents can be a deterrent to businesses and shoppers.

The planning commission took no action on the proposal at Wednesday's meeting and are to discuss it further at a later meeting.

Prior to the public hearing, planning commission member Jim Stone expressed concern about the rules, saying it essentially "outlaws" the type of shelter provided by some churches that are not operated 24 hours a day.

Planning Director Kathleen Maher said the intent is not to outlaw shelters but to make sure the homeless are helped both at day and night.

The zoning text amendments would not apply to existing homeless shelters, Maher said.

Whether they would apply to a permanent shelter planned for REACH depends on when the changes become effective, she said. The planning commission did not discuss when the changes would become effective.

REACH and Christ's Reformed Church have a tentative agreement to open a permanent homeless shelter on the third floor of a building next to the church on West Franklin Street.

Some city officials were surprised in June to learn that REACH was considering a different location, at 35 E. Washington St., as a backup site.

That news prompted discussions about whether shelters should be permitted downtown, near the library and open 24 hours.

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