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Homeless panhandlers are moving into Towson; Police asking residents not to give donations


Many days, Darryl Smith stands at the intersection of Dulaney Valley Road and Fairmount Avenue in Towson wearing a green coat and blue corduroys while carrying a tattered cardboard sign that reads, "NEED FOOD."

Most times, drivers at the stop light look the other way or fiddle with the car radio. Sometimes, the window rolls down and a hand offers the 29-year-old some change, maybe even a dollar.

Smith -- one of what police say is a growing number of homeless panhandlers in Towson -- says he nets about $11 on a good day in front of the bustling Towson Town Center, where hundreds shop at the region's biggest mall.

"I get better luck out here," said Smith, who stays with a Baltimore friend occasionally, but travels to Towson every day to panhandle. "No one in the city gives."

Police are asking people to stop giving, prompted by complaints about disorderly behavior and aggressive panhandling.

"It is becoming more noticeable," said Capt. Charles W. Rapp. "It is safe and it is lucrative here. People know they won't be rolled out here like they could be in Baltimore."

As a result, said Rapp, "we get calls about them going into a business to get warm or use the restroom. They're buying their alcohol from local liquor stores. They're getting more aggressive on the streets.

"But if they keep getting money, they'll keep coming back," Rapp says.

While no accurate statistics are available, police say calls about people living in stairwells, garages and on top of heating grates have become more common. Most of the disturbances are fairly minor.

Hardest hit, police say, is the business district and York Road corridor in Towson.

Police have been called to Donna's Coffee Bar on Allegheny Avenue on several occasions because four homeless men have built a temporary home for themselves on the heat generators behind the building.

"I guess because we're a coffeehouse, they come in here a lot," says Jason Lamott, a manager at Donna's. "We call the police because sometimes they swear at our customers and follow them around. It scares our customers away, and it's gotten worse since it's gotten cold."

At Moxley's Ice Cream Parlor down the street, owner Tom Washburn has seen the same group of homeless men come and go, usually without trouble.

"We've had customers complain about them ," Washburn says. "We wouldn't do anything otherwise."

Police and county officials are working with local businesses to come up with a solution, said County Councilman Wayne M. Skinner, a Republican who represents the area.

"There's money in Towson. People know that," said Skinner. "One of the problems is that we no longer have a homeless shelter here in Towson. It closed about three years ago."

Opening a shelter is one possible answer that the business district is discussing, Rapp says. Some local churches hand out tickets to homeless people so they can shower at the YMCA. Some places give out free meal tickets.

Rapp also has talked to businesses about creating a fund for homeless people instead of giving them money directly. In 1996, a similar effort took place in Baltimore, when leaders of 60 shelters, soup kitchens and other service providers for the homeless asked the city to help lead a coordinated effort to combat an increasing problem of homelessness.

A bill introduced recently by Del. John S. Arnick, a Baltimore County Democrat, might make it harder for panhandlers everywhere. Prompted by complaints from "three or four" constituents in his Dundalk district, Arnick said he wants to make it illegal for pedestrians to stand on highway lane dividers.

Sun staff writer Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 2/15/99

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