Homeless become big issue for Laurel City officials suggest other areas need to help with care

September 29, 1995|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

In a dispute that may signal rising hostility toward area homeless, a soup kitchen operator in the City of Laurel says that officials are pressuring him to stop serving homeless people from out of town.

Their immediate target appears to be about a dozen men who spend their nights under a bridge just across the border in Howard County and who officials say drink, fight and panhandle on the streets of Laurel.

On Monday, City Administrator Ernest Zaccanelli and Police Chief Roy Gilmore held a meeting with Robert Colnaghi, who operates the 5-year-old Elizabeth House soup kitchen in Laurel, the city's largest supplier of meals to the homeless.

Mr. Colnaghi said the officials told him "we should not serve those people from Howard County that we're a magnet for homeless people from Anne Arundel, Howard and Montgomery counties."

But Mr. Zaccanelli said the meeting was held only to remind Mr. Colnaghi that Laurel has limited resources and that other counties should help care for homeless in the area.

"We don't want to stop feeding them at all," he said. "We want to find a way of helping them with tough love." He said that might mean turning away some of those who refuse to help themselves.

In June 1994, merchants in Historic Ellicott City made similar complaints about people along Main Street, citing drinking and loitering that annoyed customers in the business district.

Social service providers warn that such disputes will become more common as the ranks of the homeless grow because of cuts in federal programs.

"This is just the beginning," said Andrea Ingram, executive director of Grassroots Inc., a Columbia organization that houses homeless people in Howard County and expects to open a 12-bed men's shelter in November to meet growing demand. "It's going to get worse because of the funding decisions being made by the federal government."

Howard County officials estimate that 700 to 800 homeless people receive services in the county each year. Laurel officials say that 70 to 90 people are served annually at Elizabeth House.

Howard officials and Laurel, in Prince George's County, long have fought over who is responsible for the homeless living under the bridge on U.S. 1 over the Patuxent River in North Laurel.

Officials and merchants in Laurel -- a 20,000-resident municipality -- say the number of homeless is increasing and blame the homeless for panhandling and prostitution on the city's streets.

"I don't think the homeless problem is being dealt with," said Dixie Thomas, co-owner of the Main Street Corner Shoppe. "I think it's being tolerated and accepted."

She and others say they don't have a problem with city programs that help the homeless, but they are angry about homeless people who are allowed to roam the streets, bothering customers.

"Some of them don't want help," said Vita Iocco, owner of Philadelphia Style, a restaurant on U.S. 1 near the bridge. "That's the problem. I don't know how to solve that problem.

"I feel sorry for them but I have a business to run."

Laurel officials say the problem is made worse by generous social programs, including the private Elizabeth House and the nonprofit Winter Haven shelter, which houses single men in local churches and synagogues from December through March.

The more they offer such services, "the more people like that they're bringing into the city," Mr. Zaccanelli said. "The City of Laurel cannot continue to take on the responsibility of feeding people from three or four counties. These big counties with far more resources need to take the responsibility."

Laurel residents particularly are upset about the men from Howard County who spend their nights on wet blankets under the U.S. 1 bridge or in makeshift tents in the woods next to the bridge.

Paths through the woods are littered with soda and beer cans, fast food containers and other trash. Some of the homeless say they try to keep the area clean and blame the litter on others.

Andrew Curry, 51, moved under the bridge 1 1/2 years ago, after a back injury left him unable to work.

"If I had a choice, I would rather be working," said Mr. Curry, known as "Papa Smurf" to the homeless around Laurel because of his gray -- almost white -- beard and his 5-foot-5 height.

The Baltimore native, who grew up in the Savage and North Laurel areas of Howard County, said his only family in the area is a sister who lives in Glen Burnie.

"If I can get hold of my sister, we would help each other," Mr. Curry said. "We've done each other favors for the last 15 years."

For now, his home is under the bridge, where the noise of cars makes sleeping difficult.

"If you don't get half drunk, you can't go to sleep," Mr. Curry said. "It's kind of rough when you've got to go through life like that."

Concerned about the men living under the bridge, Jane "Jenny" Smith of Laurel City started the Winter Haven shelter program five years ago. Ms. Smith said that some have caused trouble in Laurel, but that they still need help.

"These guys are not all choir boys but they're all human beings," Ms. Smith said. "The problem isn't just going to go away. Honestly, I think there will always be people living under the bridge."

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