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Homeless face many roadblocks

November 13, 2005|By Carrie Tressler

I would like to share with the community that November is Homeless Awareness Month. In addition, November 13-19 is National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.

One should be aware that homeless do live in our community, and this is often a topic of contention. For example, in an August Hagerstown City Council meeting, Penny Nigh once again spoke out on homelessness. She has long been critical of local homeless services in the community and feels these services draw more homeless to our community.

In this particular meeting, she suggested that the city should not provide money to REACH, a local service provider and Cold Weather Shelter. Other City Council members and members of our community share Nigh's feeling toward the homeless. In response to those who feel that our community services attract homeless persons, I ask: What came first, the chicken or the egg?

It seems pretty simple to assume that having the programs available would attract people to use them, but I would think that these programs would have developed out of need. Otherwise, they wouldn't have stayed in business long or even received the funding to operate in the first place.

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I agree with the overall opinion that there is a homeless "problem" in our community, but there are many factors that feed into Hagerstown's homeless "problem."

Hagerstown's homeless do not all fit into one category. And there are several reasons that can cause a person to become homeless.

I will acknowledge that there are chronic homeless members of our community who are more often than not addicts. But how many of them are also mentally ill? These two often go hand in hand.

Should we punish someone who is unable to cope with his or her symptoms of mental illness who turns to self- medication because they don't have insurance for psychiatric care and medications? Or should we even punish someone who is mentally ill and not abusing substances who is simply unable to keep his life in order long enough to maintain a home?

There are many types of mental illness, the symptoms of which may cause someone to make poor decisions in their lives which would further perpetuate their problems.

In addition, there are many hurdles with in the mental health system that makes it difficult to reach every person in need appropriately, such as dwindling funds or the growing difficulty for someone to be approved for benefits such as Social Security or even medical assistance.

What else can cause a person to become homeless? Loss of employment, physical illness, family issues, etc. But a huge issue in this community is housing prices.

A large portion of our community that earns a low income. Add to that low income the ever-increasing price of rent.

With increased property values come an increase in rent. With an increase in rent, we are further putting families at risk for homelessness.

The average wait for Section 8 public housing is now 18 to 36 months, and Section 8 vouchers no longer cover the full price of rent.

Perhaps you're thinking: "Those people just need to get a job!" That is not always as easy as it sounds. You can get a job if you have a photo ID. But you can't get a photo ID without a birth certificate and proof of residency. You can't get a birth certificate without a photo ID or any other documents proving your identity.

In addition, you're homeless and have no job; how are you going to pay for these things? Or, imagine this. You are a single mother. You get a job, but now you have to pay for child care. Due to ever-increasing budget cuts, you can't get daycare vouchers. So now you have to pay for your child care, which is, at a minimum, $100 a week per child.

That's $400 a month per child. You bring home around $600 a month on minimum wage. Let's be fair, though, and say you make $8 an hour and bring home $950 a month. Sure, you're left with $550 a month. You're lucky if you can find an apartment at that price, but what about your other needs -ood, maybe diapers or gas?

Monthly bus fares are $50, but what if your job isn't on a bus route or you work a schedule that doesn't fit the bus schedules? Let's not forget that in order to get into an apartment you typically have to have a security deposit and first month's rent.

That would be $1,000 for $500 a month rent. How do you save up that money when you are putting money out for food, transportation, day care and maybe a hotel room?

My only request is this: Before you form an opinion about the man walking down the street with the backpack, stop and think about how he might have gotten to this place.

In closing, I would like to share that I have had some wonderful experiences in working with the homeless. I have had clients get into apartments and maintain them.

I have had clients who have come back and made donations to help others. Overall, be aware that the majority of my clients are truly grateful people who do not want to live such a lifestyle, but just need a hand up to get out of their situation.

In fact, their pride and embarrassment makes some hesitant to even ask for assistance or take it when offered.

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