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Homeless 'brothers' reflect on their lives

September 22, 2009|By ERIN JULIUS

HAGERSTOWN -- "Why didn't I stay in the Army? That is a very good question, because everything leads to I should have stayed in the Army," Michael Petry said, reflecting on a life that brought him to a seat in the Washington County Free Library.

It was in the library that he and a friend talked this spring about being homeless in Hagerstown.

Petry and Peter Allen Keyser have been homeless for years. During the winter, they usually spend their nights at the REACH cold weather shelter. After that closes for the season, they camp in the woods.

"We look out for one another," said Petry, 56. By now, the men can complete each other's sentences, and they prompt each other to honestly share their stories.

Keyser came here from Florida. He has an aunt in Rockville, Md., and another in Beltsville, Md.

So why does he stay in Hagerstown?

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"That's a damn good question. I have no idea," he said.

He would like to return to Florida, but he has talked to his mother and she said there's no work down there either, Keyser said.

He wants one thing, Keyser said: "A job."

Petry said he doesn't really have family. Not unless you consider us, he said, looking at Keyser.

"A brother," Petry said.

Petry doesn't know if his mother is living or dead. Same with his sister. Same with his daughters.

Petry said to be homeless means grappling with loneliness and danger.

"Can't wake up secure when you wake up in the woods," he said.

The way people look at them when they wear their backpacks bothers him, Petry said.

"I guess they look down on you," he said.

"This is what we have. We wake up to it, want to do the best with it, don't want to break the law," Petry said.

But bad things happen in the woods, and some do break the law. Some of those who are homeless burn tents and steal.

"A couple ... are going to make things hard for those who already have it hard," Petry said.

"When the bad things happen, we try to keep our distance," he said.

Keyser says two tents were burned in two weeks last winter.

"That's somebody that has nothing stealing from somebody that has nothing," Petry said.

There's no need for that, Petry said. Be it blankets, a tent, food or water, "whatever we got, we give," he said.

On a Friday night last winter at the cold weather shelter, security personnel sent Petry out to retrieve a homeless man who was in a nearby alley and couldn't make it into the shelter on his own.

"Now he's not going to get arrested, not going to be cold," Petry said.

A month before that, security sent someone out after Petry, who was drunk. "I was freezing and didn't know it," Petry said.

"I would like to be understood as an individual, as a person. All of us in the woods, we're people," he said.

"We're just regular people in the woods with nowhere to go," he said.

The men didn't talk long on this Friday night. They were getting up early because they had found some work: Removing tree limbs from a yard after a recent storm.

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