HAGERSTOWN -- By 7 p.m., the invisible have begun to materialize in the basement of North Side Mennonite Church.
These are no angels, these homeless men of Western Maryland. They are a ragged bunch in denim and flannel, unkempt hair and tired looks. At least three are drunk. One sotted man stumbles in and promptly passes out on a cot.
But they are warm and safe for another night in the Cold Weather Shelter. Hot potato soup simmers on a stove. Just as importantly, there are friendly faces here, people who will talk to them, listen to their problems, perhaps play a few hands of cards.
When local advocates first proposed using a succession of church basements in Hagerstown to temporarily house the homeless, some people questioned the need. In Baltimore, sure, you can find homeless people sleeping on grates or asking for change. But Hagerstown, a city of just 35,000? They are not so easy to see.
"It took some convincing to prove that we had a problem," said Carrol G. Springer, an assistant director with the Washington County Department of Social Services who launched the effort. "In rural counties, the homeless may be less visible, but all you have to do is look."
The Cold Weather Shelter is, in essence, a homeless homeless shelter. No church houses the shelter for more than two weeks before the responsibility is passed along to another Hagerstown place of worship.
With the most humble of budgets -- just enough to pay for a security guard -- the shelter depends on volunteers.
When the first church opened its doors Nov. 17, organizers patrolled the streets in search of vagrants and could find only two. But as word spread, the men and women began to show up -- 15 on a typical night last week.
"Most of us know there are a few homeless people around, but we didn't realize how many are out there in the countryside living in old cars or beneath overpasses," said the Rev. Don R. Stevenson, senior pastor at Christ's Reformed United Church of Christ, the shelter's first host. "We've grown in awareness. We just didn't know early on."
The regulars include Joe, a former truck driver and high school dropout, and Ron, a construction worker who said he lost his home three years ago. They have an easy camaraderie and often spend their days together walking the streets or reading at the public library.
Harry doesn't mind having his full name appear in print: Harry "The Hat" Fink, 53, a former resident of an alley by the downtown Maryland Theatre. His nickname came from the pointed brown woolen cap he rarely takes off his head.
County officials estimate that there are probably more than 100 homeless people in Washington County. There are other shelters to house women and children and families, but precious little for the homeless men, and occasionally women, who are often alcoholic, drug-addicted or mentally ill. This is a shelter of last resort.
By rotating the shelter's site, the churches can allow their meeting spaces to be used without greatly inconveniencing their other activities. Moreover, the shelter is less likely to stir animosity from neighbors.
But the greatest benefit of this philosophy may be in education. More than 100 volunteers have gotten involved so far, and they are learning not just about the invisible homeless but about fundamental human ties.
"It's a cross-cultural experience," said James S. Martin, the retired owner of a building supply and heating oil company who is serving as shelter manager. "People are finding out that these people aren't much different from who we are."
Some volunteers are scared at first. They don't know what to expect and worry about disease, theft or bad behavior. But most are quickly at ease when they realize that the "guests," as Martin calls them, are generally good-natured and appreciative.
Take Roy, for instance. A New York native, the 52-year-old was hitchhiking south when he stumbled into the area weeks ago. He can quote Sinclair Lewis and likes to talk astronomy and politics, subjects he reads about in the library. But he admits he's sober only because he's broke.
"This is a lot better than a sleeping bag," he said.
At North Side, a one-time broom factory that now houses a congregation of about 60, the accommodations are modest. There are surplus Army cots and linens donated from the local hospital. There are bathrooms, but no showers. But the food, much of it donated by church members, is plentiful.
"They treat us like we're somebody," said Joe. "They don't treat us like idiots."
The concept of a movable shelter is not unique to Washington County. A similar program was started six years ago in neighboring Frederick.
Persuading churches to get involved has not been easy. Most are willing to donate money or food, but many don't want to serve as host. Ten are needed, and only seven have committed so far.
Still, supporters are amazed at how much they've accomplished already. With support from an ecumenical group called REACH (Religious Effort to Assist and Care for Homeless) and the nonprofit Community Action Council, the effort has required minimal government support.
Volunteers suspect that more homeless are out there, camped out in the woods or other hidden spots, reluctant to seek help until the truly cold weather arrives. They see the problem growing, as Maryland's urban center pushes out into this fertile valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
"The experience taught us to see the homeless as human beings and not statistics," said Stevenson. "These are people with similar hopes and dreams as you or I, people who enjoy life and community."
Pub Date: 12/15/96