Plan to build fence to stop people from sleeping under bridge deferred Homeless advocates seek alternatives

September 06, 1996|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Health and social services officials have backed away from a proposal to erect a fence to prevent homeless people from sleeping under a U.S. 1 bridge at the border of Howard and Prince George's counties, amid concerns that such a measure likely would make the problem worse.

Advocates for the homeless, who have spoken against the fencing, say it would cause the homeless to move deeper into the wooded area near the bridge. Those woods abut residential communities, so driving homeless people there likely would draw complaints from homeowners.

The State Highway Administration said fencing has been tried in other locations, and the homeless climb over it or cut it. The administration has cleared some trees and brush around the bridge and plans to erect no-trespassing signs as deterrents.

Bert Nixon, a director in the Howard County Bureau of Environmental Health, which has formed a multicounty group to study the homeless problem, said the group has been looking at alternatives to the fencing plan.

"I don't know that [the fencing] is a dead issue," Nixon said. "But it has been put on the back burner for now."

The effort to solve the problem includes health, social services and public safety officials from Howard, Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties. They agree that a shelter -- particularly a "wet shelter," which accepts alcoholics -- is one of the best solutions, but finding a suitable location has been difficult.

"I do believe that there needs to be a wet shelter, where there's NTC a little bit more tolerance for people who have been drinking," said Andrea Ingram, director of Grassroots Inc., a shelter in Columbia that is helping with the Laurel homeless issue. "You have to make it possible" to get the homeless off the street.

For decades, the bridge at the border of Howard and Prince George's counties has been a haven for the homeless. More than 20 homeless people -- mostly men -- have lived under the bridge or in the nearby woods along the Patuxent River. The site also is near the Anne Arundel County line.

In recent years, there has been a growing number of complaints from Laurel merchants and residents about drunken homeless people roaming the streets by day, panhandling, loitering, littering and trespassing.

The men, many of whom are alcoholics, range in age from 20 to 60. Some have said they don't plan to leave their campsites under the bridge.

Laurel officials have blamed Howard and Anne Arundel counties for the influx of homeless people and have asked the two counties to take care of their own residents.

Since May, the multicounty group has been looking at ways to solve the problem.

The effort has not yielded specific plans, but some members are optimistic that something will be accomplished.

Over the past 20 years, Jane "Jenny" Smith, a longtime advocate for the Laurel area's homeless people, has seen several attempts to solve the problem. This time, she said, "I think that there is some hope in that it is a multicounty effort."

Members of the group "still are plugging away, trying to find some resources," Smith said. "People have actually been

discussing ways to make this happen."

Nixon, the environmental health official, said much of the effort is being devoted to finding a suitable location for a shelter.

Pub Date: 9/06/96

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