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Vigil aims to raise awareness

November 15, 2004|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, PA. - On the kind of night when many would prefer warming themselves in front of a fire, about 50 people gathered Sunday on Memorial Square, getting scant warmth from the candles cupped in their hands.

The men, women and children were there for a candlelight vigil marking the beginning of Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week, sponsored by the Franklin County Local Housing Option Team, a group of human service agencies, churches and volunteer organizations.

Although it has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state at 3 percent, according to Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry statistics, the problem is great enough here that there are three homeless shelters and a fourth soon to open, according to Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the Washington, D.C.-based National Coalition for the Homeless.

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"There are 800,000 on any given night," Stoops said of the estimated number of homeless people in the United States. Over the course of a year, he said 3.5 million people will find themselves without shelter.

"Both of my programs are pretty much full all year around," said David Nemitz, the program director for the South Central Community Action Program shelters in Adams and Franklin counties. The shelter in Gettysburg, Pa., has 36 beds and the one in Chambersburg can accommodate 24 people a night, he said.

Nemitz got a taste of what it means to be homeless in college when he returned from a weekend outing to find his apartment roommate had moved his belongings to the curb and locked him out. He spent two nights sleeping in a breezeway and months afterward living from hand to mouth.

"Even when the economy is good, homelessness increases," Stoops said. The fastest-growing segments of the homeless population are families and the working poor, he said.

"People need more than just food and shelter," said Stoops. The homeless also need spiritual guidance and support services to change their lives.

Stoops said the homeless are victimized by criminals on the streets where they sleep and by the "criminalization of homelessness" in communities where they face arrest. Little Rock, Ark., ranked worst among major cities for the treatment of the homeless, he said.

By contrast, Stoops said people and organizations have reached out to help the homeless in Franklin County, which has shelters in Waynesboro, Pa., and Chambersburg, along with the Women In Need Shelter for abused women in Chambersburg. A cold-weather shelter also is being readied in Chambersburg.

This week's activities include an open house at the Franklin County Shelter for the Homeless, 223 S. Main St., Chambersburg, from noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday; an open house from 1 to 7 p.m. Wednesday at the New Hope Shelter, 7 S. Potomac St., Waynesboro; a community dinner at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in the First United Methodist Church, 225 S. Second St., Chambersburg; and an open house from 1 to 3 p.m. Friday at the Cold Weather Drop-In Shelter, 195 Loudon St., Chambersburg.

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