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Zoning changes could close shelter

August 19, 2003|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

REACH would have to stop operating a local cold-weather homeless shelter if the City of Hagerstown approves a plan to tighten the zoning restrictions for future homeless shelters, requiring that they be open around the clock, REACH's executive director said Monday.

Officials with the city and REACH - Religious Effort to Assist and Care for the Homeless - were to meet this morning to talk about the matter.

REACH does not have enough money, personnel or resources to operate a 24-hour shelter, although it shares that goal with the city, said REACH Executive Director Terri Baker.

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"We need to work together on this. It can't be something mandated," Baker said.

At its Aug. 6 meeting, the Hagerstown Planning Commission held a public hearing on proposed zoning text amendments that 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. The law would not apply to existing shelters.

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

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, Baker said.

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 from patrons and library officials. The problem grew worse last winter, which was particularly cold.

While the planning commission has not voted on or indicated its position on the issue, Hagerstown Councilman N. Linn Hendershot said Monday he is watching the situation carefully. Hendershot said he would oppose the council adopting the restrictions as proposed because he does not think expecting REACH to operate a shelter 24 hours a day is a realistic demand.

Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith, Councilwoman Penny May Nigh and others spoke in favor of the zoning change proposal at the public hearing.

Smith questioned whether REACH is helping the homeless by providing shelter only at night.

"We are doing more than just offering a place to sleep," Baker said. "We are giving them an access to community resources centers, giving them information on houses and employment."

Baker said the public hearing and the details of the proposed requirements caught her by surprise because the city and groups helping the homeless have been working together in recent months.

REACH plans to move into a permanent site next to Christ's Reformed Church on West Franklin Street, she said. The site is more than 1,500 feet from the library.

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