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Tents are a shelter, not a home

September 20, 2009|By ERIN JULIUS

Hundreds of beer and liquor bottles, a black duffel bag hanging from a tree, the remnants of a fire.

On a rainy April afternoon, these are among the signs that some people make their homes in the woods in an area of Hagerstown.

A pair of boxer shorts can be seen in a heap of bottles. A cell phone was left in the dirt and is soaking wet.

Volunteers from a local church, Lifehouse West on Salem Avenue, trudge through these trees every week, searching for anyone who needs help.

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The location of the campsite is not being published to protect those who make their homes there.

The volunteers hear a voice from a tent that is nearly hidden from view beneath a brown tarp.

"That was cool," said the voice, referring to a sandwich and snack cakes the volunteers left at his tent the week before.

The man, Klaus Kneeland, said he slept during the day, and worked third shift, cleaning.

"I'm working my way out of this mess," said Kneeland, who didn't want to come out of the tent, but agreed to answer a reporter's questions.

Kneeland said he had been living in the same spot for two years. He has a friend who lives on West Washington Street, where he showers. He tried staying at REACH's cold weather shelter, but said he couldn't sleep in a room with 50 noisy men.

"Out here, you can hear the birds," he said.

Kneeland has concocted a fairly elaborate campsite -- tent, coolers, clothesline. He even erected a small sign bearing one word: "Hope."

Pastor Justin Repp prayed with Kneeland before moving on to other sites.

Others in the woods in April didn't have as much as Kneeland did.

One campsite consisted of nothing more than blankets piled on garbage bags. On one visit to the site, a rain-soaked pillow was nearby.

Elsewhere, four people made their home at a spot where they had lived for about three years.

One of them, Ronald Robinson, 55, said he worked for a construction company in Florida for about 6 1/2 years before being laid off. He said he tried unsuccessfully to get a job and then came to Hagerstown because he was originally from Maryland and has family in the area.

Two men living at the camp did not want to be identified. The fourth occupant was a woman named Alice Shorday.

Robinson gave a visitor a tour of their campsite, proudly pointing out some of the improvements they had made.

Pots and pans were suspended from a tree. There was a fire pit, a clothesline and even a bathroom constructed from tarps and a bucket.

A solar shower got the water reasonably warm if it was in the sun for a few hours, Robinson said.

They got drinking water from a spigot at City Park.

Robinson also collected water that dripped from a vine, noting that it is sweet and good in coffee.

Inside the tent was a couch that Robinson said he found abandoned and hauled half a mile from the train tracks.

He had arranged wire shelves to hold his jar of coffee, cans of beer, a jar of pickles and a container of fabric refresher, among other items.

Robinson's radio was hooked up to a car battery and he had an $80 propane stove. On this day, he was out of propane.

The group sometimes would collect morel mushrooms from the woods and fry them.

Shorday, one of the few women living in the woods at the time, had arranged clusters of Christmas candles near the base of a tree.

An American flag was next to a Confederate flag on another tree.

They collected items by shopping at yard sales, where they find things they can afford.

Sharing with others

On an April day, the four offered candlesticks to the Lifehouse West church members visiting their site. They had bought extra candles at a yard sale, someone said. One of the men also offered spare blankets "if anyone needs them."

"If we have extra, we'll give it," the man said.

Why give when they have so little?

"We live in the woods every day, we get blessed every day," he said.

But all is not blissful in the woods.

One of the four always stayed at the campsite to protect it against intruders.

A noose was suspended from a tree near one of the tents. It keeps people away, they said.

They might have had reason to be concerned.

Michael Petry, who lived in another wooded area in Hagerstown, talked about "tent wars" during an April interview at the Washington County Free Library in downtown Hagerstown. His friend, 44-year-old Peter Allen Keyser, said the homeless steal from other homeless.

In September 2008, he and Petry had two new tents side by side, Keyser said.

Someone burned down one of the tents. Two weeks later, the other tent and a queen-sized mattress also were set afire.

"We can't do anything," Keyser said. "Don't want to start no tent wars."

Petry said family pictures from his former home in Pennsylvania were destroyed in the fire.

"The nicer you are, the more they take advantage," Petry said. "They mistake kindness for weakness."

The men said they were willing to share what they have.

"If you need something, just ask," Petry said.

By Petry's estimate, the number of homeless people living in tents around Hagerstown had at least doubled in the past two years.

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