Concerns spark joint effort for homeless Street death brings problem into focus

July 11, 1996|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Underneath a bridge at the Howard and Prince George's County border, he made his bed along the Patuxent River on mounds of dirt surrounded by beer cans, trash and rodents.

Just after noon last Saturday, he died of heart failure about a half-mile away -- the first homeless man in recent memory found dying on Laurel city streets, police say.

The tragedy comes as Laurel city and Howard and Anne Anne Arundel counties work to resolve decades-old concerns about the approximately 20 homeless who live amid insanitary conditions under and near the U.S. 1 bridge over the Patuxent River.

Officials have suggested lighting at the bridge and fences to stop homeless people from camping under the bridge. Social service advocates want a cross-jurisdictional "wet" shelter that -- unlike most shelters -- could house drunken people.

"We're just trying to put our heads together to see if there might be a way to resolve this problem," said Bert Nixon, a director in the Howard County Bureau of Environmental Health, which formed the multijurisdictional group last May to look at the homeless problem.

"It's been looked at in the past with varying degrees of success," he said. "I'd like to think that this time we will come up with some tangible solutions."

Last Saturday, when an unconscious man was found at 12: 08 p.m. near the Laurel Plumbing Supply company at 132 Washington Blvd., the community was reminded once more of the needs of the homeless.

Arliss "Butch" Golden, 55 -- a lifelong resident of Laurel and a grandfather who worked much of his life until the want for alcohol consumed him -- was pronounced dead at the Laurel Regional Hospital shortly after he arrived.

"He may not have fallen into the standard categories of people you wanted to associate with," said Jane "Jenny" Smith, a longtime advocate for the Laurel area's homeless. "He still didn't deserve to die outside."

Many who regularly pass through Laurel may have recognized Golden as one of the more than 20 homeless who by day roam the city's streets or stand outside bars and by night live in the hollow between U.S. 1 and the river. All but a few are men and range in age from their 20s to their 60s. Many are considered alcoholics by social service workers.

Smith stresses that they must be treated in a "humanitarian" way. She objects to a Howard County Health Department suggestion that fencing be erected to stop the homeless from laying down their pallets on the grounds beneath the bridge.

"Even if a fence is put up, unless there's an alternative they're still going to have problems," she said. The homeless "just don't magically disappear and there has to be some understanding that herding them up and down and to different places is not going to resolve the problem."

The State Highway Administration, responsible for the bridge, is studying the feasibility of putting up fences, but has not completed its evaluation, spokeswoman Susan O'Brien said.

Officials still are trying to come up with other ideas to resolve the problem. It has been such a long-standing concern -- with various teams of officials and social service advocates trying year after year to solve it -- that some are unsure what can be done.

And some of the homeless living under the bridge don't want anything done.

David Hess, 62, is among those who have lived under the bridge. He mostly stays in the wooded area around the bridge now since he was flooded out during a storm.

The Greenbelt native said he's been living outside for 30 or 40 years in the Laurel area. And he vows never to live inside again.

"I love it outside," Hess said. "I can't stay inside. I feel couped up. Outside I can go where I want to."

The bridge also draws homeless people from Anne Arundel County. In the past, responsibility for aspects of the problem has been passed among jurisdictions.

Laurel officials have for years fielded complaints from business owners and their customers about homeless people panhandling in the city's streets.

Officials at times blamed the problem on homeless people from Howard County coming into the Prince George's side of Laurel, insisting that Howard should take care of its own.

Howard County has noticed the problem, but isn't accepting all the blame.

Last summer, Howard County police received regular complaints about trespassing, breaking and entering, loitering, littering, fights and disorderly conduct -- mostly about the homeless who live under the bridge.

In May, Howard County had the first of a series of meetings on the issue -- gatherings that have included police, social service agencies and health officials. After the first meeting in May, Howard County expanded the talks to include officials from Laurel city.

"Obviously, this is not just a local problem," said Sgt. Steve Keller, a spokesman for the Howard County Police Department. "Howard County is not the only place that has homeless people."

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