Westminster's Street People

April 21, 1995

The dozen or so "street people" who hang around Westminster seem as much fixtures in the Carroll County seat as any immovable edifice. If they aren't sitting on the benches in front of the county library, you can find them at the planter near Paradiso or perhaps on the steps by Schmitt's Rexall Drugs.

The presence of these men and a few women in downtown Westminster has been a nagging problem for merchants, shoppers and residents. They occasionally panhandle, harass passersby, drink alcohol in public, urinate on walls and trees. A number of merchants blame them for the decline in the city's business vitality.

NTC Since assigning a foot patrolman to downtown, the Westminster Police Department has done an excellent job in monitoring their behavior. As a group, they've been much less rowdy and disruptive in recent months. But shop owners and their customers still find their presence troubling and would like them to vanish.

A city task force looked into the problem and correctly concluded that Westminster's street people must be seen as a social problem, not a law enforcement dilemma. Most of these people share a number of characteristics: They are substance abusers, unemployed and homeless at various times during the year. Some of them may also be mentally ill.

Since these people have nowhere to go during the day, they while away their time hanging out in public. As long as they are complying with the law and normal rules of social behavior, they have every right to spend time on the street.

To remove Westminster's street people from their haunts, they need somewhere to go. Some towns, such as nearby Frederick, have opened day centers, where street people can sleep, get something to eat and take a shower. As a result, Frederick doesn't seem to have a panhandling problem.

While drop-in centers may reduce the conspicuousness of the problem, the core ill won't be solved until more drug and alcohol treatment centers are opened and society improves the supervision of the mentally ill who get released into the community. Until that happens, the rest of us will have to accept the reality that there will always be groups of street people clustering in downtown spaces like Westminster's.

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