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Westminster mayor objects to homeless


Westminster Mayor W. Benjamin Brown wants to stop people like Edward S. Hanson Jr. and Okey Lewis from hanging out on Main Street.

The men say they have been hassled by city police, although they are breaking no laws by standing around talking. They ask where the mayor would like them to go, because Carroll County has no emergency overnight shelter open to them.

So far, no one has generated a solution to the situation.

"If [police] catch you [drinking], they tell you to go down under the [Green Street] bridge. Then they come and pour [the alcohol] out down there. What are you supposed to do?" Mr. Lewis asked.

Both Mr. Lewis and Mr. Hanson are homeless. Mr. Lewis declined to say where he is living, because he doesn't want police to move him out. He says he has found a better shelter than the cardboard box behind the Westminster Shopping Center where he had been sleeping.

Mr. Hanson said he went to Human Services Programs of Carroll County Inc. last week to apply for shelter. "They said, 'We've got you on the waiting list,' " he reported.

Meanwhile, he planned to sleep in the space between two Main Street buildings.

Mayor Brown announced plans last week to have the city attorney research legal options to deal with what he called "the seemingly growing number of street people." He said he also plans to schedule a public meeting at which representatives of interested agencies can discuss the situation.

Mr. Brown said he believes the offensive behaviors of street people that draw complaints from merchants and city residents "are associated with the consumption of alcohol."

The mayor said his concerns were prompted by "five years of accumulated frustration," the length of his term in office.

He said his frequent discussions with Police Chief Sam R. Leppo end with the conclusion that nothing can be done to deter people from gathering on the streets. But he wants to know if new laws that have been tried in other cities could work here.

Kathy Bitzer, assistant director of shelter and housing for Human Services Programs, confirmed that she has seven men on a waiting list for eight available beds. But men who don't want to commit themselves to a 12-week rehabilitation program don't qualify for the HSP shelter, she said.

"There should be a place where people can go in, whether they're drinking or not, to get out of the weather," Ms. Bitzer said. "It's a problem in this county, and it's a problem that needs to be addressed."

Shoemaker House, a residential addiction treatment center on Washington Road, provides overnight shelter, but bars anyone who is drinking or using drugs.

Ms. Bitzer said she has no local shelter option for men who do not want alcohol or drug treatment.

Mr. Hanson said he never harasses passers-by. "We might take a drink. We're alcoholics," he said. "Maybe we're wrong for taking a drink, but we're not a threat to anyone."

Mr. Lewis said he does not threaten pedestrians. He said he cannot be accepted into the Westminster Rescue Mission because he is still drinking, and he has nowhere else to go.

Some downtown merchants complain that street people frighten harass employees or customers. One business owner stopped having female employees go to the bank or post office. Another merchant, who has left Main Street, attributed the move partly to customer fears.

But other merchants point out that people have been hanging out on Main Street for many years. They said fewer people have been gathering on the street since a city officer began patrolling on foot during the summer.

The Rexall Drug Store at 55 E. Main St., which sells package goods, is targeted by some merchants as a source of the Main Street gatherings.

"This store has had a liquor license for 50 years," said pharmacist and co-owner Forest Howell. "If they don't buy it here, they're going to buy it at the Carriage House [a West Main Street package goods store]."

Mr. Howell said he believes most of the street people are harmless. But their appearance may make some business customers or pedestrians uncomfortable, he suggested.

John Mercer, co-owner of Mercer Floors Inc., 26 W. Main St., stopped having female employees do any company business on East Main Street because of what he called "the continual harassment they had to endure from men on the street."

Mr. Mercer issued notice of his new policy to local newspapers, but refused to discuss it with a reporter.

Sharon Hooper, owner of The Yarn Basket, said a rent increase was a major factor in her decision to move her knitting supplies shop from 37 E. Main St. to Old Westminster Pike. But she said complaints from customers about people hanging out on the street was part of her reason for moving.

"We would see [men] urinating on the street," she said. She said she called police, but by the time an officer would arrive the men would have finished.

Lt. Randy Barnes, the city police public information officer, said people can be arrested for indecent exposure, disorderly conduct or for violating open container laws -- if they are drinking on public property.

"If they're just standing on the sidewalk, there's very little we can do," he said.

Lieutenant Barnes said he had no information on how often people are arrested for street-related violations or whether the numbers have risen or declined in the past several years.

Mr. Howell suggested a law similar to Baltimore City's, which bars loitering within 50 feet on either side of an establishment that sells alcoholic beverages.

"I think the new officer has been very good in keeping them moving," Mr. Howell said of the street people. "But it's a rights thing. They have a right to be on the street and to buy liquor."

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