A community meeting to discuss the small population of individuals experiencing homelessness in the Arbutus area, originally designed to develop solutions to deal with the issue, was instead heated and passionate and ended without any concrete paths forward.
The Thursday evening meeting, hosted by County Councilman Tom Quirk’s office at the Arbutus Branch of the Baltimore County Public Library, drew more than 100 people and was standing room only. Quirk was unable to be there, but one of his legislative aides, Michael Sparks, was in attendance.
Sparks said it was probably the most crowded community meeting he had ever seen.
The population of homeless people in Arbutus has long been a contentious community issue in the area, with many residents blaming Matt’s House, a nondenominational Christian church that runs a resource center, for exacerbating the problem.
During the week, Matt’s House offers services like counseling, group meals, showers and laundry. Between a dozen and 20 people show up each week, said Abigail Sidery, coordinator for the drop-in center. Of those people, she said maybe six are experiencing homelessness.
Sidery said she is licensed as a social worker in the United Kingdom and has more than 10 years of work experience, but is not licensed in the United States. Leaders with Matt’s House said there is a licensed counselor who works at the drop-in center. For things like medical services or legal advice, Sidery said they work to refer people to others.
However, the resource center on East Drive is not open all day every day; it’s only open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Residents have long said the inconsistent hours encourage people to congregate around the center after getting services there, and encourage the population of people going through homelessness to linger in Arbutus during the week.
The meeting opened with Pastor Rob Benson and other leaders from Matt’s House speaking to the crowd, explaining the work their congregation does — including youth activities, service projects and care teams to help people through difficult times, like a death in the family. The church is also a consistent partner in the annual Arbutus Beautification Day.
But as the meeting turned to a question-and-answer session, the mood became tense. Community residents wanted to know what services Matt’s House was offering, and what sort of goals or guidelines the organization has for those who use the drop-in center.
“We see them hungover, or high in Rite Aide. We’re wondering, what are your goals?” asked Jen Gower, one of the organizers of the fledgling Concerned Citizens of Greater Arbutus group.
Many others in attendance expressed similar concerns, saying they were frustrated with seeing people who appear hungover or intoxicated in the streets, panhandling or otherwise behaving like “vagrants.”
Benson said he and his church were not in a position to tell people how to live their lives or demand certain results.
“They’re adults. I can’t really change what adults do after they leave our care. What we do is we guide and direct them. But after that, I can’t do anything about them,” he said.
Eliot Latchaw, captain of the Wilkens Police Precinct, said there were many complaints that were not crimes, and so there was not much police could do other than patrol the area and try and get people the help they need.
He said, over the last five years, crime reports for trespassing and public intoxication have remained consistent, in contrast to the persistent rumor that crime has increased measurably in the recent past.
“What does that mean? All I can tell you is that the problem hasn’t worsened. If you want from a police perspective, is your neighborhood spiraling downhill?” Latchaw said. “I will tell you no.”
Still, Latchaw encouraged community members to call police anytime they have a concern related to the homeless population. He said it was the best way for the police to get an understanding of the scope of the problem and provide a proper response.
Members of the church became at times defensive, asking community members what they’ve done to help the homeless population and standing up to defend their church and their ministry. Benson at one point asked his congregants to refrain from responding to accusations and instead listen to their concerns.
There were several points during the meeting when people shouted over each other and the room was dominated by cross-talk. Latchaw became visibly annoyed and asked people to remain civil.
“I have a fundamental problem with everybody throwing out these generalizations. You should be calling us, and we should be working together,” he said
At one point, Halethorpe resident Stephanie Robbins stood to speak, raising her voice in exasperation.
"It is not a crime to be homeless, it is not a crime to be poor, and it is not a crime to sit on a park bench in public,” she said.
She suggested Matt’s House become more “transparent,” maybe by including a phone number or an email address on its website on how best to get in touch and volunteer.
Svetlana Peshkoff, an Arbutus resident of 14 years, made a similar request, asking if the church would develop a code of conduct or give the community a “starting point” as to what the church might do to address the community’s concerns.
Benson, however, demurred. He asked one of his congregants to start a list of people from the community who would be willing to volunteer with the church. But he stopped short of saying the church would develop a code of conduct or put more direct lines of communication on their website.
He will work on and consider those ideas, Benson said. But, "I cannot commit to something I am not going to follow up on. Period.”
Sparks said he would work on scheduling another community meeting to continue discussing the issue, as people obviously still had things to say and issues to work out.
Gower said she did not really know what to think at the end of the meeting.
“Hopefully we meet again and come up with some real answers," she said.