Giving the county's homeless a hand up

December 10, 2006|by BOB MAGINNIS

It was last Wednesday morning and the businesspeople in The Clarion meeting room had already started to fidget because the program had gone a half an hour longer than promised.

Despite that, Hagerstown Mayor Robert Bruchey got up and told a very personal story. A man he did not name, but who he said was like a brother to him, had lost his home because of an addiction to alcohol.

For seven months, the mayor said, he opened his house to the man and tried to help him, doing things such as making sure he got to work on time.

But in the end, the mayor said, he realized he did not have the training to help his friend and, in fact, had become an enabler.


We need programs for such people, the mayor said, but the people getting the help must be willing to work on improving themselves.

So ended the Dec. 6 meeting of the Mayor's Task Force on Homelessness, a meeting at which many facts were offered. But a few key questions were only partially answered, including:

How many homeless people can Hagerstown and Washington County afford to absorb?

If existing services are further improved, will this county attract homeless people from other areas?

Councilwoman Penny Nigh has been asking such questions and though she didn't speak at the meeting, one nonprofit official after another clearly attempted to deal with her concerns by emphasizing how many of their clients were either natives or long-time residents of the area.

I may seem heartless for saying this, but Nigh has a point. Just as Hagers-town cannot afford to be the new home for every inmate released from the state prison complex, it is not feasible or desirable for this county to handle the problems of every homeless person from the counties to the east - or west.

Does that happen? Bruchey told me after the meeting that one city in far Western Maryland had been busing its homeless to Hagerstown because the services were available here.

So that is the dilemma: How do we shelter our own - and maybe a few more - without being overrun by the homeless from elsewhere?

This is not a rich county, although some are doing very well. Many of the natives could not now afford to buy their own homes, if they were starting out again.

Rents are forcing some minimum-wage workers to take more than one job to pay for the rent and necessities. A new crop of people who don't have education or advanced training will not make these situations any better.

But let's be clear - not all homeless people are the same. Over the years, I've interviewed many of them.

I remember a man and his family at a food bank in the West End. He seemed more stunned than sad that he'd been laid off and couldn't make the rent when it came due.

I remember some younger homeless men who'd done things they shouldn't have, such as quitting when the boss didn't treat them with the respect they felt they were due.

I interviewed one of these on a bench in City Park and asked him of he wore his fancy gold jewelry to job interviews when appearing more needy might be the better way to go.

I'm not going to change who I am, he said. I wonder how long he kept that resolution.

Then there was the homeless man I met in the woods while searching for hobo camps with Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith and Bob Nigh, husband of the councilwoman.

He was obviously the watchman of the day for others in the camp, who were off doing "day labor." He was a local man, he said, and became homeless after finding his wife had cheated on him, with not one, but two other men.

The tents in the camp were not ragged, but as big and elaborate as you would find in any family campground and most were further sheltered with blue plastic tarps strung above them.

These were people who had chosen to be homeless, who had planned for it. But it did not appear to be much fun, judging by the filthy clothes hung on lines between the trees.

And most had apparently been self-medicating with alcohol, judging by a mound of beer cans big enough to bury a VW Beetle in.

Twenty years ago, this would not have been a problem. Many families took care of their own and rent had not yet outpaced wages by as much as it has now.

Those addicts of alcohol and other drugs who had burned all of their bridges had two choices - sleep in the bushes or go to the Union Rescue Mission, where staying sober and listening to sermons was required of those who wanted food and shelter.

I agree with the mayor. Those who want free eats and a safe place to sleep need to work at getting sober and getting the skills that will allow them to afford their own apartments and maybe someday, their own homes.

The transients who go up and down the East Coast should be encouraged to bypass this area. If Joe Smith was here last November and he's back again, he needs to account for what he's been doing. And if it's been bouncing from one shelter to another, he needs to be told to move on.

I know readers will write to tell me how much I don't know about homelessness and perhaps, as I said earlier, how heartless I am.

But I agree with Bruchey, who said that the homeless should be offered "a hand up, not a handout." Those who don't want to help themselves should be asked to move aside to make room for those who are genuinely needy and who are ready to participate in their own resurrection.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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