Hagerstown's shelter problem can be solved simply by ending homelessness

October 26, 2003|by Robert S. Barton

Much is being said and written about the homeless situation in Hagerstown. There is legislation that is being considered which has attracted a fair amount of attention. On behalf of the Hagerstown City Department of Urban Housing (DUH), I would like to present our response to the pending legislation:

Regrettably, the intent of those who have crafted and support the new legislation has come under attack from well-meaning, but obviously short-sighted persons. Charges and ad hominem attacks have been spreading like germs in a day care center. I will concede that it might appear to the uninformed that the proponents of the legislation are mean, heartless, callous and cruel, but a closer look reveals nothing could be further from the truth.

We should applaud those forward thinking and compassionate persons. The regulations that have been proposed are in the best interest of the homeless and represent truly forward thinking. Take, for instance, the section of the statute prohibiting locating a shelter within 1,000 feet of an existing shelter. The intent of this provision is to ensure that property values for our shelters be kept as high as possible. When the clients apply for a job or create a resume, it is important that the address be as upscale and respectable as possible. Who wants to stay in a shelter which is undervalued by being in the same neighborhood as another shelter? Not me! And I'm pretty sure not you, too.


As far as shelters needing to locate more than 1,500 feet from the central library, it is not difficult to see this is a rather transparent attempt to help the homeless stay in the best physical condition as possible. The homeless, being in significant ways like the rest of us, will not walk any further than necessary to get where they are going. Locate a shelter across the street from the library and the next thing you know we are going to have some frightfully out-of-shape homeless folks. That clearly won't do, particularly when the city is so concerned with its image. I for one applaud this conscientious and considerate aspect of the legislation.

The last point concerns requiring shelters to be staffed 24 hours a day. The hidden beauty in this requirement is that no community can meet this requirement. It is likely that all the faith communities working together would not even be able to attain this standard. Here is where the genius of this proposal becomes evident. The proponents of this legislation are against homelessness!

They understand that homelessness will reflect upon the community, as will the way that such persons are treated. The only win-win solution is to end homelessness as we know it. It follows that if there are no shelters, there can be no homelessness.

While the above is a tongue-in-cheek response, the fact is the issues surrounding homelessness are uncomfortably complex and seldom humorous. No single approach will "solve" the problem, and homelessness will likely never be eradicated. Yet it is a fact that the way people in need are treated - both personally and societally - does reflect upon the community.

The Cold Weather Shelter operated under the auspices of REACH has served many people in recent years. The clients range from people who are "down on their luck" to persons with serious mental health issues. Some do hold jobs and are improving their circumstances.

It is a fact that some of the homeless have been a nuisance; the same can be said, albeit for different reasons, for our politicians. Yet however the problems alarm us, and however such persons may annoy us, the solutions will not be found in restrictive legislation. Positive steps and helpful solutions will be found when reasonable persons work together. These persons need to have a concern for the homeless as well as for the city and downtown neighborhoods.

I am pleased to serve a church which has taken responsibility to help serve those in need. We believe that as we have served the homeless we have been serving the larger community as well. And though we don't want to say it too loudly, lest anyone misjudge our motives, we know that we have been richly blessed as we have served these children of God.

Robert S. Barton is pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Hagerstown.

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