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A time to remember those who don't have thermostats to turn ...

October 11, 2009

The chilly temperatures of October are a reminder to turn up the thermostat. Turning up the thermostat should be a reminder that some people have no thermostat to turn up.

Of all our social maladies, homelessness might be the easiest to ignore, because it frequently is the hardest to see. This is particularly true in small communities where it's rare to see someone sacked out on a city heating grate.

People who have been forced out of their homes by a sour economy are not particularly proud of the fact; people who, as Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith says, are in a sense homeless by "choice," are not particularly looking for attention.

So to many of us, homelessness has no face.

Except now, in a Herald-Mail investigative series, reporter Erin Julius has put a face on the problem, profiling many of those who lack thermostats. Now that the very real problem has been laid bare, it's up to the rest of us to act.

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The numbers of homeless are fluid and hard to nail down. But the economy appears to have added to the ranks. Local soup kitchens have reported longer lines this year and a higher number of families struggling to find something to eat. Some homeless families include a full-time wage earner, but it's not enough. Washington County schools identified 244 homeless children during the 2008-09 school year. And while some adults might be homeless by choice, there are many kids who clearly have no say in the matter.

Sometimes our fault is to associate homelessness with men sitting around a barrel fire and passing a bottle. That's out there to be sure, but it's wrong to lump this stereotype in with the people who want desperately to get back on their feet.

Often, just a gentle tug is all that's needed to pull individuals and families back from the brink. It's in everyone's interest to make sure that these stopgaps exist.

The story of homelessness in Hagerstown is about more than just a bottomless pot of soup for the permanently, and perhaps voluntarily, downtrodden. It also is a story of success, of heroes, of people, churches and organizations that give of themselves so that others can return to a decent way of life.

It's about people who have accepted a hand up in their time of need, gritted their teeth and turned an unfortunate situation around. And it's about people who help people simply because it's the right thing to do.

Societies, it's often said, can be judged by how well they take care of those in need. There's really no need to parse the homeless on a case-by-case basis, trying to decide who's worthy of help and who brought the situation on himself.

If a human being is cold or hungry, none of that matters.

Our community is blessed with a number of organizations that offer help, but they count on our assistance, just as the homeless count on theirs. Julius' touching stories and a list of caregivers that would be appreciative of a donation can be found on The Herald-Mail's Web site, www.herald-mail.com.

If you are unsure about giving, consider the comment of a homeless man whose little group was offering blankets and yard sale items to their fellows "if anyone needs them."

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

If men with no thermostats can be so generous, certainly so can we.

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