Homelessness an issue in community, county
Wednesday, 08 May 2013 14:52

Complaints of homeless living in local park

by Nicole Rodman

    Homelessness is not a new phenomenon in Dundalk.
    But for many St. Helena residents, including Christopher Chance, the ongoing issue of homeless people living in the woods at St. Helena Park on Willow Spring Road is quickly coming to a head.
    In a letter sent to state Sen. Norman Stone’s office and The Dundalk Eagle, Chance discussed the impact that St. Helena’s homeless population is having on the neighborhood’s revitalization efforts.
    Noting the recently-completed dog park and plans to renovate St. Helena Park over the next three years, Chance described the problem of the homeless that live, often in tents, in the woods at the park.

    “This poses a problem to the area and is a contradiction to the direction the area is trying to go,” Chance wrote.
    According to Chance, he reported the issue to police who, upon arrival, told him there was little they could do.
    “I was told by a younger officer that they could not do anything about the situation; they would just wander off into the shopping center, and where would I rather have them?” he wrote.
    Dissatisfied with this answer, Chance said that this type of response is unfair to the people of St. Helena and Dundalk.
    St. Helena Neighborhood Association president George Wischhusen agreed.
    “It’s a problem,” he told The Eagle, noting that future renovations to the park, including a bike path and new fields, will require access to the area currently inhabited by the homeless.
    Wischhusen also cited the constant presence of alcohol bottles and homeless people “taking showers in the park” as issues impeding the community’s enjoyment of the park.
    “It’s something you can’t have if you want to have a decent park in the neighborhood,” he noted.
    As Wischhusen explained, the homeless living in the park are not only impeding the community’s enjoyment, but they are acting illegally, as no one is supposed to be in the park after dark.
    Like Chance, Wischhusen also questioned the police response in regard to the homeless residents of the park.
    Unsatisfied with what he perceives as inaction on the part of police, Wischhusen said of the officers, “They need a plan and a set of rules they need to follow.”
    For Wischhusen and his fellow St. Helena residents, it is an issue they have dealt with for years.
    “It’s a constant battle,” he said, adding, “Dundalk can be a great place. It was a great place when I was younger.”
    On the city side of St. Helena, Shirley Gregory, president of the St. Helena Community Association, said she has also been fielding complaints from residents who are frustrated with the issue of homeless camps in the woods.
    Like fellow St. Helena residents Chance and Wischhusen, Gregory says the police have told her that, if they drive the homeless from the woods they will go up to the Dundalk Village Shopping Center and other parts of the area.
    Though she understands this argument, Gregory rejects the notion that the homeless should stay where they are.
    “Why does it have to be St. Helena Park?” she asked.
    As Gregory pointed out, having the homeless living in the St. Helena woods poses a hazard to the community.
    In the winter, she noted, the homeless in the woods light fires to stay warm. Unattended, these fires could become a threat to the woods and nearby homes.
    According to Gregory, she has asked for increased police patrols in the area in an effort to deter homeless people from camping there.
    Speaking with The Eagle, North Point Precinct 12 commander Capt. Jan Brown agreed that the precinct often deals with area homeless.
    According to Brown, there is only so much his officers can do.
    Noting that many of the homeless need mental attention and other services, Brown admitted that that there is “not a very good system in place in government to deal with that.”
    As he explained, when officers do come across a homeless person or encampment, they give the person a warning to pack up and move on.
    If they fail to move, they are usually arrested and charged with trespassing and other offences.
    While bail is usually higher for arrestees with no address, the crimes the homeless are charged with are usually minor, and those arrested are back out on the street quickly.
    While Brown admitted that “we tend to be a step behind,” he noted that the department does what they can to address the issue.
    As Brown explained, seven local officers will undergo bike training in June, which will allow the department to put more police on bike patrol in St. Helena to monitor such activity.
    In his capacity as Precinct 12 outreach officer, Sgt. Bob Stelmak deals closely with the homeless in the area.
    According to Stelmak, the police work closely with non-profit homeless outreach group Prologue Incorporated to provide services to the homeless community.
    When police get a report of a homeless person, they often call Prologue, who will send someone out to interview the person, offer them services and, often, take them to a shelter.
    According to Stelmak, however, this procedure is not always successful in getting people off of the street.
    “Sometimes it works,” he said, adding, “It’s a low percentage.”
    According to Prologue, Inc. staff member Mary Beth Baughman, the resources her group has to offer are often limited by lack of shelter and funding.
    “The beds are few and far between,” she said, noting that, in Baltimore County, there is just one Dundalk-area cold weather shelter (at the North Point Government Center) and one year-round shelter for men in Catonsville.
    And, often, she pointed out, it is very hard to get homeless people to leave their area, especially in Dundalk.
    “People expect us to move them, but if there is no shelter space or they don’t want to move, we can’t force them,” she explained.
    “In some ways, a lot of times our hands are tied,” she added.
    In response to the issue of homelessness, especially on the east side of the county, political leaders and county officials are attempting to solve a complex problem.
    For his part, Del. John Olszewski Jr. noted that he had advocated for a homeless center to be built at the Diamond Point Shopping Center on Eastern Avenue, but that “unfortunately, the county did not opt to pursue this option.”
    The shopping center has since been sold to a private company.
    Olszewski did point to a new shelter being built on the campus of Franklin Square hospital, but noted that “it will require Baltimore County stepping up and devoting the necessary resources to get homeless individuals out of the St. Helena Park and Dundalk Shopping Center and into the shelter.”
    According to Sue Bull, coordinator of Baltimore County Homeless Services, the county offers many services to the homeless, including shelters and rapid rehousing programs designed to offer permanent housing.
    As she pointed out, according to the results of a Point in Time survey of homeless citizens taken each January, the number of homeless people in Baltimore County has actually decreased since last year.
    As results are still being compiled, Bull had no firm figures from this year’s survey.
    She also noted that the county is putting the finishing touches on a 10-year plan to address homelessness, the results of which should be released soon.
    Though she remained optimistic, Bull admitted that the lack of funding and resources does make it hard to address the problem.
    “We do what we can with what we have,” she explained.
    Though residents demand answers, a lack of funding, shelters and resources has made it difficult to make any meaningful, lasting progress on the issue of homelessness in Dundalk and Baltimore County.
    But, for Christopher Chance and other residents of Dundalk, the issue is one which can no longer be ignored or put aside.
    As Chance wrote, “For years, the citizens of Dundalk have felt helpless as we have watched our community devoured .... I and the community here in Dundalk want this to stop.”
    He continued, “Yes, I know it takes time and money. I have the time and I am sure we in Dundalk can join together with the money as long as we see it is making a difference. I am not going to give up on this.”