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Volunteers brave cold to address plight of homeless

November 15, 2003|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

Bone-chilling wind swept across the parking lot of the Hagerstown Church of the Brethren Friday night, rearranging - and, in one instance, collapsing - the appliance-sized cardboard boxes that a dozen or so activists planned to occupy for the night.

An occasional siren interrupted the constant rumble of traffic on East Washington Street. A neighborhood dog barked its curiosity at the group at regular intervals.

The National Weather Service forecast temperatures dipping into the 20s before adding the wind chill.

There were no walls to take cover behind, no doors to close against the noise and the cold; no place in that parking lot to call home.

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That was the point.

The ninth annual Grate American Sleepout, sponsored by the Task Force on Homelessness of Washington County, was moved to the Mulberry Street church this year because it was "a much more visible location than City Park," where the event was previously held, said David Jordan, task force chairman.

Each year, volunteers spend a night on the outside to draw attention to the problem of homelessness. Organizer Janet Cole estimated 12 to 15 participants would stay the whole night this year.

Among the participants were four students studying human services at Hagerstown Community College. One of them, a man named Andre, knew firsthand what it meant to be homeless. Two years ago, he said, he was on the street.

He didn't dwell so much on the problem as on the help he'd gotten from the local organizations represented on the task force.

"They didn't make me feel like I was something to be walked on," he said. "They didn't make me feel like I was dirty. They treated me like a person."

Now, he said, he's on his own. He chose to major in human services because he wanted to give back some of the help he'd received.

Though the numbers fluctuate, the task force said that based on 2001 figures Washington County had more than 2,400 homeless people during the year. A point-in-time survey conducted just last March found 93 people sleeping in places not appropriate for human habitation; 29 of them were children.

Michael Stoops, a founder of the National Coalition for the Homeless, applauded Hagerstown for its efforts at tackling the problem, citing the shelter under construction and the city's recent decision to fund a daytime shelter.

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