Suicide worries Howard officials; Death underlines case of hard-core homeless


Many people -- church members, social workers, police, business owners -- offered to help this homeless man, and he always listened attentively.

Ronald Phillip Parandes was an alcoholic, had been since at least the early 1980s. He held jobs occasionally, even got married in 1991. But as a voluminous court record shows, he couldn't give up drinking for long and got arrested repeatedly for alcohol-related offenses like disorderly conduct.

Leaving jail, or a shelter where he'd spent the night, Parandes would return again and again to the stretch of U.S. 1 where Howard, Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties meet, to a bridge under which homeless men have lived for many years. A hard life, but predictable. Until last week.

Thursday morning, at the age of 38, Parandes hanged himself at the Howard County Detention Center. His death raised anew a perplexing issue: What else can a community do to help people like him?

"The big question is: whose responsibility is it?" said Manus O'Donnell, Howard County's director of citizen services. "Whether the number of homeless is growing or not is secondary to the need for the individuals to live a better lifestyle. Many have refused the service and there's only so much you can do for someone who refuses help."

Detention center officials were shocked. Although he faced a painful withdrawal from alcohol, Parandes had endured that many times before, and officials said he did not seem suicidal.

"This has affected everybody," said Melanie Pereira, the center's director.

"You're dealing with people who could be your brother, sister, your mother."

Burglary led to arrest

Parandes, also known as Ronald Phillip Johnson, arrived at the facility Monday after Howard County police charged him with fourth-degree burglary that day. He was arrested at Vernon's Auto Services in the 9900 block of Washington Blvd. in North Laurel. Parandes and another man had tried to break into a recreational vehicle left there for repairs, police say.

"It looks like [they] were seeking shelter," said Howard County police Lt. Pete Dantuono.

Jail officials placed Parandes in a solitary cell after doctors determined that he suffered from alcohol withdrawal. He was checked every half hour. Last seen alive at 7: 04 a.m., Parandes was found dead, hanging by a sheet from a window, at 7: 31 a.m. Police and detention center officials are investigating his death.

Rooms without walls

Parandes was one of about 20 homeless men who live along U.S. 1. The bridge is popular with the men because from it they can move from jurisdiction to jurisdiction -- and dodge police -- quickly.

Under the bridge are rooms without walls, cleared-out areas that men had selected as their own.

Each space is distinctive. Some have mattresses and clothes, others magazines and cigarettes. When visited Friday, nearly all had empty alcoholic beverage bottles.

Parandes was well known there.

"When someone told them to leave, he was essentially the leader of that group," said Howard County Police Det. Carl Shoffler, who concentrates on homeless issues and says he ran into Parandes about once a week. "He would essentially herd them away a lot of times."

Parandes got married in 1991, was separated in 1994 and divorced last year, according to court records. His former wife, contacted Friday in the Laurel area, didn't want to comment. Many details of his life are a mystery, except one, well known to all who knew him.

"The main contributing factor to his problems was he was a severe alcoholic," Shoffler said.

That addiction became the center of Parandes' life, prompting him to work or steal to pay for more alcohol, court records and interviews reveal.

"One time he offered to sweep the floor for a couple bucks," said Joe Johnson, an employee of the U-Haul business near the bridge. "That lasted about two days."

A year ago, a reporter for The Sun interviewed Parandes for an article about the homeless men living under the bridge. Survival in the winter, he said, meant bundling up in layer upon layer of donated clothing, and finding money to buy booze.

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

"At least," he added, "they seem to care."

Others also care, and try to help.

Andrea Ingram is executive director of Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center Inc. of Howard County, which runs a shelter program. She says many of the homeless men who seek treatment are admitted alcoholics or drug addicts. Some suffer from mental illness; all have nowhere else to go.

At Grassroots, they must agree to stop drinking and to enter a treatment program to get them back onto their feet.

Grassroots offers them "a lot of support," Ingram said. "They're in an environment where they have food, clothing, shelter and just the right amount of structure. They have access to mental health treatment and that seems to really help."

Parandes' underwent treatment at times, Shoffler recalls. The chances of long-term recovery, among this hard-core group of homeless men, are not good, he suggests.

"I'm hard-pressed to come up with someone who has come out of the situation," said Shoffler, who has studied homelessness in the Laurel area for the last six years. "A lot of people are frustrated because their immediate help doesn't work."

O'Donnell said Howard and Prince George's county officials met about a year ago to discuss ways the homeless population along the U.S. 1 corridor could be helped. The group never came to a consensus about what could be done, O'Donnell said. "Nothing was ever developed."

For now, officials will continue to arrest people when necessary and try to direct these men to better opportunities.

Said Shoffler: "Arrest alone isn't the best form of intervention, but sometimes it's the only way to keep them alive."

Staff researcher Jean Packard and staff writer Edward Lee contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 2/14/99

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