A mission, a ministry

February 01, 2004|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

The only reason you don't see homeless people sleeping outside on ventilation grates in Hagerstown is there are no grates to sleep on, retired police officer Melvin Smith said.

In Washington, D.C., where Smith worked for 21 years, homelessness is very much out in the open. In Hagerstown, where Smith now works, it's less so, but serious nonetheless, he said.

Smith has seen it during his 3 1/2 years as a resident manager at the Hagerstown Union Rescue Mission on North Prospect Street. The mission offers beds on the first floor to transients and on the second floor to residents, and meals throughout the day.


Smith was reluctant, at first, to talk about his work in a way that would spotlight him. Rather, he sees himself as a cog at the mission, trying not to let the destitute fall into despair.

"It's not about me," he said. "It's about souls, guys who will probably never have another chance in their lives. This place will humble you."

Smith, 62, of Smithsburg, understands, in a different way, the fight for dignity. He grew up on Pennsylvania Avenue and went through what then was a segregated school system in a racially split city.

"It was a real challenge, too," Smith said. Black children didn't get the same education, right down to the ratty leftover books, he said.

Schools finally were integrated during his last three years in high school. Smith graduated from North Hagerstown High School in 1959.

"Kids don't know what struggles have been made right here in Hagerstown," he said.

What surprises Smith the most today is the number of people who don't do the simplest things for themselves. Smith tries to help them, but he wonders, "Do we enable too much? Sometimes, I think we do."

He walks them through how to get a Social Security card. He takes them to health clinics, the hospital or social service agencies. He gives a sermon and leads them in prayer before weekday lunches.

Smith spent 21 years as a Washington, D.C., police officer, retiring in 1991 as a patrol sergeant. His territory was in northwest Washington, from 5th Street to Connecticut Avenue, north of L Street.

"I saw a lot of people out there on the streets," he said.

Smith said it made him streetwise, a plus for his current job, but he's not sure how satisfied he was as a police officer. It was never his ambition. Smith joked that he didn't realize law enforcement would be a career until he retired.

A sales job with a pharmaceutical company brought him back to Washington County in 1991, but his job was eliminated after four years.

Smith moved on to a seasonal maintenance job at Catoctin Mountain Park in Thurmont, Md., for three years.

While attending Virginia Avenue Baptist Church in 1995, Smith heard that area churches took turns leading services at the mission. He decided to volunteer in the kitchen or wherever he was needed.

"I guess it's that I asked God to give me a mission to work ... and this is what he gave me as a ministry," he said.

Smith said he was an outsider, but he grew to know many residents, some of whom have no family around.

He took the resident manager job when it opened in August 2000.

Just like in Washington, some street people aren't keen about relying on a police officer.

"Most people don't like authority," Smith said. "When they see a badge and they see a weapon, they see authority."

For Smith, that was then. He tries to gain trust from another angle.

At the mission, "The guys are all hurting - mentally, spiritually and physically - when they walk in here. ... We have to deal with them in a totally different way. We try to get them to learn a lesson instead of (receive) a punishment."

Smith - who also is an emergency medical technician, trained in basic life support, for Community Rescue Service - said it's rewarding to walk away from work each day thinking you've done your best.

"I've learned not to get to the point where if I don't see (success), I get discouraged," he said. "In this job, there is a lot of discouragement."

"I'm not important," Smith added. "I'm insignificant. But you have to see a little of yourself in each person, or you become callous and cynical, and they get enough of that."

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