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Into the woods, in search of Hagerstown's homeless

November 03, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

It's a gray day in the mid-50s as Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith pulls his unmarked cruiser into a gravel driveway off Wesel Boulevard.

A light rain is falling, which will make note-taking a challenge, but I've promised Bob Nigh - husband of Hagerstown City Councilwoman Penny Nigh - that I would go along for a tour of local "hobo camps."

Nigh and his wife are concerned about the camps, not only because the homeless men's daytime excursions into downtown discourage people from doing business there, but also because their path to the center city takes them past the pre-school program one of their grandchildren attends.

Our first stop, after a slide down a muddy trail, is a camp right at the edge of the woods where the homeless appear to have hauled in an assortment of old stuffed sofas and chairs. The ashes of a camp- fire are there, but no people.

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Not far from here, Chief Smith said, some of the transients tried to burn a homeless man to death. Generally, they do little harm, Smith said, except when they begin sniffing a paint thinner called tuolene. Then they can become violent, attacking each other, Smith said.

At this point, I'm glad that we're accompanied by HPD Lt. M.L. King and Justin Wert, a K-9 officer who I notice is wearing two sidearms, one at the waist, the other at mid-calf. What are we in for, I wonder.

King explains that they're looking for a man who has been threatening railroad maintenance workers with a machete. The two uniformed officers lead the rest of us along narrow paths they describe as deer trails.

The wooded area along the railroad right of way is not hard to navigate, but is thick enough, even with many of the leaves off the trees, that it's difficult to see for more than 30 feet ahead.

We come out of the woods and onto the tracks, where the officers show me an old steel box no bigger than an outhouse.

Once, it was home for a man about 65 years old. Chief Smith said HPD found the man other lodging in town, but after a week he was back in the box again, complaining that he didn't want to be around all those people. The railroad stopped that, Smith said, by tipping the box upside down.

The officers spot another trail and we head back into the woods again and within 100 feet, we come to an elaborate camp.

On either end, there is a tent, not the military surplus kind, but big, modern tents of the sort you'd see in any commercial campground.

Over the top of each tent, a blue plastic tarp has been rigged to divert rainwater. Hanging from ropes strung from nearby trees are ragged clothes - jeans with the knees ripped out, socks stained with mud. On the ground, there are enough beer cans to bury a small auto.

From one tent, officers rouse a man dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt open to the waist. A ring hangs around his neck on a chain and a 12-pack of beer sits halfway out of the tent's front flap.

Lt. King quizzes the man about where everybody else is and about who in the camp might have a machete. He informs the man that he's trespassing on private property, issues him a warning and tells him to get the camp cleaned up and move on by sundown.

The man, whom I won't identify because he wasn't charged, tells a sad story about a woman who did him wrong and shows us pictures of his two small children. Lt. King recommends that he go to the Union Rescue Mission and straighten himself out.

Smith explains that most of the men who stay in the woods don't want to go to the mission, even though it's warm and dry and they could get a meal there. That's because once they're there, they can't drink.

As one officer asks the man if they can search the tent for the machete, the other calls out. It's been found in other tent, in a plastic carrying case.

The officers promise to come back with plastic bags so the man can haul out the beer cans, perhaps redeeming them for cash.

Smith said that many of the homeless come here by hitching rides on trains in the fall, when it's not so miserably hot and buggy in the woods, then spend nights at the REACH cold-weather shelter.

Unless they're high on paint thinner, they cause little trouble, but they deter people from shopping downtown and from going to the Washington County Library on South Potomac Street, where they congregate to get warm, Smith said.

Smith would like the railroads to clear the brushy areas where the homeless camp. To date, Norfolk Southern has cooperated, while CSX has not done much, he said, in part because of the many layers of bureaucracy one must negotiate to get action.

Nigh and his wife argue that the services offered here make Hagerstown a magnet for the out-of-state homeless, while REACH officials say that most of the homeless they serve are local.

Local or not, all should be able to agree that if you're being fed and sheltered here and have no visible means of support, the price of that support should be attending job- training classes or counseling sessions.

That's true not only because it would be good for the revitalization of the city, but also because while camping out in the woods is fun when you're a kid, it's really no way for a grown man to live.

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