Men On The Street Won't Go Away

COMMENT

December 26, 1993|By BRIAN SULLAM

If you are a woman working for Mercer Floors, you can forget about going to the bank, picking up lunch or doing any other company business on East Main Street during business hours.

Only men now can do those chores, Mr. Mercer instructed his employees in a memo sent out two weeks ago.

Don't call the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Human Relations Commission or your congressman.

John Mercer, the owner of the carpeting and flooring business, isn't sexist. He is just concerned about the increasingly confrontational behavior of some of the drunken men who hang out on East Main Street across from the library.

Several of his female employees carrying out business errands have had to contend with lewd comments and foul language. Apparently, the behavior of these men has frightened the women, and Mr. Mercer believes he is taking an appropriate step to protect them.

"I don't think women should have to hear this on the street," said Mr. Mercer. "I have heard words -- that you and I have certainly heard before -- shouted down the alley. No one should have to hear this."

It is not just the shouting and the verbal harassment that bothers Mr. Mercer. Seeing grown men and women stumbling around drunk during the middle of the day does not enhance the already precarious condition of the retailers who still operate businesses on Main Street, he said.

To see first hand what Mr. Mercer was talking about, I walked over to Schmitt's Rexall Drugs last week.

Two men were standing outside on the sidewalk next door to the drug store. One of the men gripped a cup of coffee. Even though he was trying to hold it as steady as he could, the light brown contents splashed over the sides and onto the sidewalk.

His companion was swaying as he talked. His eyes were glazed over and his speech was slurred.

As I walked by, they really didn't pay much attention to me or the other people walking past them.

I popped into the drug store. Some people in town say the cheap liquor the drug store sells is the reason these men hang around this particular section of Westminster.

Among its limited liquor selection, the store carries small bottles of rum, vodka and blended whiskey, along with a number of brands of inexpensive fortified wines such as Thunderbird.

Forrest Howell, the proprietor of the drug store, said the men really don't present much of a problem to his business or his customers.

"They are harmless and have a right to be here," Mr. Howell said as he attended to several customers. "A lot of people are put off by their appearances, but they really don't bother anybody."

Mr. Howell says the problem is a great deal better than it was five years ago when he bought the business. A much larger group of people used to loiter outside the store.

"They don't hang around inside the store they way they used to," said Audrey Snyder, a clerk who has worked at the drugstore for 20 years. Joining the conversation, Cindy Rutzebeck, a 23-year employee, nodded in agreement.

For Mr. Howell, having a handful of drunks hang out is part of city life, whether it is in Westminster or Baltimore.

"Nobody likes loiterers. When this group starts hanging around too long, we tell them to move and they do," said Mr. Howell.

To those who say his sale of liquor causes the problem, Mr. Howell responded that they would obtain liquor elsewhere and still hang out in the same location. "These are homeless men who have nowhere to go. I tell the girls not to sell liquor to anyone with the smell of alcohol on their breath," he said.

Mr. Howell shrugged his shoulders when he was asked why the presence of these men has become an issue now.

"I don't know, but the parking situation is probably more critical to downtown than these men," he said.

The crescendo of complaints has attracted the attention of Westminster Mayor W. Benjamin Brown, who has asked the city attorney to explore possible legal remedies.

As it is now, the city police have the men on notice. If they urinate on the street or carry open bottles of liquor, they run the risk of arrest. However, it is difficult for the police to move them because most anti-loitering laws have been deemed to be unconstitutional.

A number of the men have been arrested as many as 50 or 60 times for a variety of misdemeanors. Arrest doesn't seem to be much of a deterrent because the men always return to their favorite spot and resume their drinking and loitering.

The sad truth is that not much can be done with these men. They aren't likely to change their behavior. They apparently prefer to deal with the world through a drunken haze.

If they had homes and incomes, we would never notice them as we ignore the thousands of alcoholics who regularly drink themselves into stupors in their homes.

The problem is that these are homeless people who do their drinking on the street. Since they refuse to stop drinking, they are not wanted in the county's homeless shelters. They also apparently are not disciplined enough to partake of the county's anti-alcoholism programs.

As long as there are people who drown their problems in alcohol on East Main Street, more employers may be forced to follow the chivalrous example of Mr. Mercer.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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