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Volunteers REACH out to homeless

October 30, 2006|by KAREN HANNA

HAGERSTOWN - Out of work and transient, heavy drinker Billy Bunch said he made a bet that has changed his life.

If he made it to Maryland, he would give up alcohol.

Two and a half years since he hitchhiked north from Florida, Bunch, of Hagerstown, was at the homeless shelter where he began a new journey in his life. As a volunteer for REACH, Bunch said he now shares his story with people living the same lifestyle he left.

The West Franklin Street cold-weather shelter run by REACH Caregivers opened Sunday for the first time since early spring.

Just before 3 p.m., when volunteers opened the doors to the first guests of the season, about a dozen people - mostly men - waited in line outside to ensure they would get a place to sleep that night.

One sported a knee-high cast, while another man held a grocery bag thin enough to reveal the beer he was carting. A slight woman sat on the sidewalk beside a rolling luggage bag nearly as tall as she.

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Inside the shelter, Steve Crum, 51, said he had waited in line since about noon to get into the shelter, where he said he spent nights all last winter.

"Good food, get to watch TV, take a shower. You know, you can't beat it. It beats being on the streets," Crum said shortly after the shelter's opening.

A brisk wind accompanied blue skies and temperatures in the 50s Sunday afternoon. A steady line of people, including Crum, filtered past the shelter's front desk and filled out paperwork before settling in for the night.

A part-time staff member and volunteer, Bunch said he still is friends with some of the shelter guests.

"I used to be homeless. I used to be a homeless drunk. I didn't have nothing. I lived on the streets, and I came to REACH, and they helped me," said Bunch, who now works full time as a heavy-equipment operator.

Jill Parker, a resource specialist for REACH, said most of the shelter's guests work, but they do not earn enough money to pay rent. Some of the guests struggle with addiction or mental-health issues, but Parker said, few ever give the shelter staff or volunteers any problems.

Ten to 15 volunteers work at the shelter on any given night, Parker said. The shelter, which is open until April, last year housed more than 300 different men and women, she said. It has about 60 beds for men and 14 beds for women, she said.

During the day, people in need of help with issues such as finding a job, paying for rent or prescriptions, or dealing with addiction may visit REACH's resource center. The center, which averages about 20 to 25 clients, this season will be open some evenings as well, Parker said.

According to Linn Davison Jr., a volunteer coordinator who attends Grace United Methodist Church in Hagerstown, many of the shelter's guests are among the working poor.

He said he has seen people turn around their lives, and though some faces are familiar from one night to the next, Davison said other guests move on.

Davison acknowledged the guests' hardships and struggles take their toll on him, too.

"A lot of the guests are a lot like my children - some of the guests get on my nerves when they're here, (but) at the end of the shelter season, I cry .. And, I worry about them," Davison said.

When Bunch decided he wanted a new life, he said, he simply laid down the liquor and moved on.

He attributes his success - he has a place to call home, a car and a female companion whose acquaintance he renewed while at the shelter - to more than his own doing.

"I really don't know. My mom thinks I have the Lord in my back pocket," Bunch, 39, said.

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