Md. communities grapple with homelessness issue

April 16, 1995|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Sun Staff Writer

"We are street people. It's part of our lives. We were born and raised here. How can they change what we are?"

The speaker is Roy Lee Spivey, 50, one of about 10 people who usually spend their days hanging out on Main Street. The people who he worries will try to change him and his companions are members of a task force that recently studied the problem of homeless people in downtown Westminster.

Longtime residents say Westminster has had street people for many years, but former Mayor W. Benjamin Brown brought the subject to the fore in November 1993, spurred in part by complaints from a Main Street business owner.

At the time, Mr. Brown asked the city attorney to research legal options to deal with what he called "the seemingly growing number of street people," but the city never enacted any new laws to deal with the problem.

Local merchants complain that street people frighten customers away by panhandling, making loud or lewd comments, public drunkenness and urinating in public.

It's old news in Baltimore City, but street people are not confined to urban centers. Local governments in Frederick, Ellicott City and Bel Air, for example, all have dealt with street people in their midst.

The task force of social services and police agency representatives made several recommendations, including treatment for addictions and amenities such as fountains that would encourage shoppers and library patrons to linger downtown and alter the perception of how many street people are gathered.

Westminster street people usually gather in groups of three or four, but "when the rest of the space is empty, even a small group can appear large," the task force wrote.

Kim E. Prehn, who makes custom jewelry in a shop in the Winchester Exchange building, said she has "drunks coming in all the time." She said she is not afraid of the street people -- some merchants say they are -- but she is "annoyed that they're hurting my business."

Tony D'Eugenio, who owns a grocery store, said he has been panhandled on his way to open his store at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. When one person's behavior became offensive, Mr. D'Eugenio became a bouncer.

"I'm a big guy," he said. "I put my arm around his neck and escorted him to the door." He said the man has not returned.

The comments by Westminster merchants echo those of their counterparts in historic Ellicott City, who called on police in June to crack down on loitering and public drinking.

The number of street people in Ellicott City has dropped to three or four, said Ed Williams, director of the B&O Railroad Museum and former president of the Ellicott City Business Association.

Mr. Williams said arrests and activities in the plaza where street people gathered prompted the change.

The Westminster task force recommended a drop-in shelter that would be open 24 hours a day.

Frederick has a daytime recreation center where street people can get snacks, a meal, a shower and a referral for free, clean clothing. Mike Spurrier, director of the Community Action

Agency, said there is little panhandling on downtown streets.

"Within the realm of the homeless, like anybody else, some people want the help and others don't," said John W. Harkins, deputy chief of the Bel Air Police Department.

Mr. Harkins said Bel Air has a few street people "who winter here, and we don't see them during the summer."

He said the street people don't frequent downtown specialty shops, although police get calls from fast-food establishments on Baltimore Pike, where street people sometimes nurse a cup of coffee for hours in cold weather.

The Westminster City Council has not scheduled a discussion of the task force's recommendations. The task force included representatives from the Westminster police, Carroll County Health Department, Human Services Programs, Department of Social Services, Greater Westminster Development Corp. and county and city governments.

City police officers have limited options for dealing with homeless people unless they commit a crime. The city has no ordinance against public drunkenness, and even it it did, there is no place to take violators for treatment.

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