Life is harsh for homeless at bridge Men are independent but destitute, and sympathy is scarce

January 11, 1998|By Jill Hudson | Jill Hudson,SUN STAFF

Kenneth Hood spends his days along the trash-strewn banks of the Patuxent River, beneath a bridge at the border between Howard and Prince George's counties.

For the past 15 years, he has sat in almost the same place every day, smoking unfiltered cigarettes as he watches the brown water rush by. His hands are cracked and bleeding from exposure to the cold.

Hood is one of 20 or so homeless men and women who live year-round under the bridge at U.S. 1 just west of Laurel Park. Homeless people have been living near this bridge for more than 25 years.

Its location lies on the borders of Howard, Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, as well as the city of Laurel, making it difficult for officials to determine who should deal with them.

"Life is damn hard out here, I ain't gonna lie," the 46-year-old Hood says matter-of-factly. "I don't mind being homeless that much, but it gets real tough sometimes. Real tough."

The homeless walk from county to county, avoiding the police who might bother them and officials who might try to help them.

"It's a sticky situation," acknowledges Howard County Councilman Dennis R. Schrader, who represents the North Laurel area. "Many of the homeless who live there under the bridge have made it clear that they wouldn't necessarily leave in order to go to a permanent shelter somewhere else."

"And no one can quite decide whose problem it is," Schrader says.

Many are admitted alcoholics. Some are fighting other addictions and mental illness. All are destitute.

Although the surrounding jurisdictions have shelters and soup kitchens, many of the homeless prefer to stay right where they are.

Ronald Parandes, 37, who lives in the woods by the river, says he spends a large portion of each day walking back and forth across the bridge -- and the county border -- trying to avoid police.

While talking to a reporter, Parandes and a few other homeless men were asked to leave the grounds on the Howard County side of the river by a Laurel Park security officer.

Although the State Highway Administration is responsible for the bridge and the grounds around it, the men say they are nonetheless asked by racetrack security personnel to vacate the land nearly every day.

"We don't want no trouble from nobody," Parandes says before he crosses the bridge into Prince George's County.

Pennsylvania native George Hannon, 45, says he and the other homeless men living under the bridge take the daily exchanges in stride.

"In the eyes of the police, we're considered nonproductive citizens," he says. "We just learn to keep our mouths shut and hope that one or two of them are somewhat sympathetic to our situation."

Not everyone is, Hannon says.

Laurel residents and business owners often complain to the police about the homeless who panhandle on city streets. Some people allege the homeless trespass, loiter, commit break-ins, litter and engage in disorderly conduct.

Many homeless men are arrested and rearrested, always returning to the street, according to Hannon and Parandes.

Various measures have been proposed over the years to deal with this group of homeless people.

The Laurel Inter-County Task Force on Homelessness -- a group that emerged from meetings of social services advocates, health department officials, police and officials from Laurel in the summer of 1996 -- wanted to build a shelter near the bridge.

The shelter would provide year-round housing for the homeless and outreach counselors would be on hand for those who wanted more help. The estimated cost was $150,000 a year.

The proposal was rejected because some Laurel officials feared that other homeless people would flock to the area for the services provided by the counties.

Frank McGloin, director of addiction for the Howard County Health Department, says that while members of the task force understand the community's doubts about having a homeless shelter in their back yard, "We just don't believe that those fears would have been realized."

Andrea Ingram, director of Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Howard, which runs a men's shelter in Ellicott City, says a solution to Laurel's homeless problem could not happen "without the cooperation of the city of Laurel.

"They have to be willing to do this, at least partly for humanitarian reasons," she said. "But there's just not a lot of sympathy for alcoholic homeless men."

Members of the task force say they will meet again this spring to discuss ways to get the homeless project back on track.

Until then, the men who live under the bridge will face another uncertain winter.

Homeless men can obtain nighttime shelter in a number of churches in North Laurel. The program is run by Winterhaven, a nonprofit organization that arranges sleeping quarters from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. The churches also provide one hot meal per day.

But once they leave the church early each morning, many homeless men say they have nowhere to go except the banks of the Patuxent River.

Parandes says his only hope of surviving the winter is to wear layer upon layer of donated clothing and scrape up enough money to buy some booze.

"When you're drunk, things don't seem so bad," he says. "We're out here in the woods; we're cold and hungry. But you meet good people out here."

Parandes takes a long drag on his cigarette and says, "At least, they seem to care."

Pub Date: 1/11/98

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