Homeless get conditional welcome in Greencastle

PAT FRIDGEN
Evidence exists that a homeless person has been living in this makeshift tent in Greencastle. The area is somewhat sheltered from the elements.

Greencastle may not have much of a homeless population, but it does have transients, especially with the proximity of I-81. It also has residents who at times find themselves in tough financial circumstances. Some help is available to those who need practical assistance in the short term, but it generally falls short of cash. Those in the position to help don’t think that is the best way to elevate livelihoods.

The doors of the churches are often a stopping place for folks in trouble.

"We help people," said Darryl Hogue, Family Ministries Director at First United Methodist Church, "but only once per year, so we can help as many as we are able."

They avoid handing out cash, opting to provide up to $50 worth of gas, food or a hotel stay instead.

Greencastle Church of the Brethren operates in the same manner. Pastor Leon Yoder will distribute local store gift cards in modest amounts. The most frequent visitors "are on the edge of homelessness, rather than homeless," he observed, and they are passing through Greencastle.

It was rare for him to encounter anyone with all of his possessions on his back. And when local people contacted Yoder they usually had a place to live, but needed money for rent or utility bills, or fuel to hunt for or get to work.

Dick Overcash, associate pastor at Calvary Bible Church, encounters only a few people a year. “It’s amazing to me that they find us, since we are three miles out of town.”

Nevertheless, he reads them, and believes some have genuine needs while others lie about their circumstances. He finds it disconcerting that a person may want money, but has a cell phone and smokes. It also “bugs” him that the visitor usually does not attend any church, but expects a church to bail him out.

Calvary has a benevolence fund for congregational members. Giving for any purpose goes through the elders first. Overcash said some of the people leave when they know they will not get cash.

“We don’t know what you’re going to do with it,” he tells them. “It’s God’s money, not my money.”

At best, he will pay a motel directly for an overnight stay, or help with gas by accompanying the person to the station. He also distributes the hotline phone number of an organization dedicated to helping those who truly need help.

No place to call home

While Greencastle has not had many obvious homeless people, at times some do set up camp. Antrim Township administrator Brad Graham was aware that several people were living in a concrete building near the interstate, in what used to be the township storage shed, for much of 2011. The property is now privately owned. Later a couple tents appeared in a nearby wooded area, though he believes they are now gone.

"There's not a lot we can do about it," he said, adding that the township had not received any comments from residents.

A year ago a different person was living behind a car wash on Buchanan Trail East and the residents on Grindstone Hill Road complained. Graham contacted the business owner, and after a considerable amount of time, the camper moved on.

Greencastle borough manager Kenneth Womack has not been contacted by citizens either, and said even if there were many homeless people settling in, the most likely response by the borough would be in regard to zoning violations.

Greencastle police chief John Phillippy has fielded very few calls about the homeless or transients. His officers do provide information on the New Hope Shelter in Waynesboro, and the South Central Community Action Program shelter in Chambersburg.

“Unfortunately, a significant portion of these folks are homeless by choice as a result of drug or alcohol problems,” said Phillippy. “While the nearby exit is loaded with the ‘unemployed’ signs, it’s been my experience that when offered work, they decline that, simply looking for a handout rather than a hand up.”

He continued that a number of them earn sufficient funds from motorists to stay in local motels and to patronize various bars. And if any would break the law, they would be dealt with accordingly.

The Castle Green Motor Inn at exit 5 is a likely first stop for homeless or helpless people. Employee Mike Jord, working in the bar and restaurant, has seen them come and go. He has become disenfranchised by the visitors.

Management had been generous to one longtime homeless man who settled in Greencastle. He was offered a room and board and a job. But he abused the aid, and is no longer welcome, according to the inn employee.

Jord learned that someone did earn $100 a day panhandling on the exit ramp corner. It was unnerving to him that the money was then spent for drinking and drugs, including marijuana and cocaine.

The motel complex serves anyone who can pay. “This is my business,” said Jord. “My door is open to everyone. They are welcome if they have the money.”

However, if any guests cause trouble, they are booted, and habitual offenders are banned.

Network

The clergy in Greencastle keep in contact with each other, and are aware of which people are knocking on every church door. They seek identification of each person asking for help, making copies of drivers' licenses and recording names and dates for future reference. One pastor said those taking advantage of the system can't remember where all they have been, so if a person comes back to him within months, he'll take out his list as proof, and announce that his church has given all the aid it can for that person that year.

If anyone asks for a significant amount of money more than once, Yoder offers financial counseling to get them on a budget. Some appreciate the plan, and others “get out real fast, especially if they are involved in substance abuse.”

Overcash is also curious about repeat visitors. “The question becomes, why do they keep needing help to make ends meet?”

Yoder cuts people a little break. He does reject certain people, but when someone first comes to his door, “I don’t interrogate them to find out if they’re legit, or I would get cynical. I let the Lord handle that.”

An empty building was reportedly the residence of homeless people until the owner boarded the door. It was easy access from I-81.