Desperate action, serious result for a man in need of shelter, food

The Baltimore Sun

At last count, there were 325 homeless people in Frederick.

If a jail cell counts as a home, then Robert Vondell Jenifer is no longer on the list - at least until his April trial date rolls around. He checked himself in, so to speak, to his own room at the county detention center in this Western Maryland city and now has his very own cot, free meals and a roof.

All he had to do, according to police, was stand in the back lot of the Frederick Police Department on West Patrick Street, where two dozen patrol cars were parked, and when a patrolman happened by at 6:45 in the morning, throw a cinder block through the windshield of an unmarked cruiser.

A desperate act by a desperate man.

"He told us he wanted a place to sleep, to eat and was tired of being outside," Lt. Clark A. Pennington, the patrol supervisor, told me. "It's very unfortunate that he had come to the point in his life where he had to reach out in this way."

It happened a day after Valentine's Day, and the 22-year-old man remains locked up, unable to post $2,500 bail and faces two misdemeanor criminal charges.

This could be a sad story about a man who had no place to go and no one to help him. Instead it is a sad story about a man who had plenty of places to go and many people to help him. His brazen, successful bid to get locked up, if that was indeed his true motive, has perplexed homeless advocates in the city of just under 60,000 residents.

The station parking lot where police say he threw the cinder block is within walking distance of two shelters that offer beds and hot meals, and he was spotted a few days before his arrest at one, the Frederick Rescue Mission.

J. Charles Smith III serves on the mission's board of directors and spends his free time working in the soup kitchen. He also is the state's attorney for Frederick County, the very man trying to convict Jenifer of the charges.

He speaks like the tough law-and-order prosecutor he is, seeking justice. "We prosecute this like any other case," Smith told me.

He also speaks like the proud volunteer he is, pleased with the baked chicken he helps serve to the down-and-out. "There are resources for the homeless in Frederick," Smith told me.

Said Smith the prosecutor: "The man might have told police that story to escape responsibility for the offense."

Said Smith the volunteer: "If this is true, it's desperation. There are much easier ways of getting free food and shelter with the resources we have in Frederick than by committing a crime."

Jenifer listed his address as 27 DeGrange St., which also is the address for the Linton Emergency Shelter, also just up the street from the police station. The executive director, the Rev. Brian Scott, wouldn't tell me about Jenifer, noting privacy concerns. But he described Jenifer's alleged act as being "very rare" and said people even with help often feel they've reached an end.

But Scott did reiterate what I heard from everybody I spoke to about this case: "No homeless person goes hungry in Frederick." Ironically, had Jenifer done at the shelter what police say he did to their patrol car, Scott told me he would've been barred from returning - the very thing he may have done to secure shelter, Scott said, "would have led him to not having shelter."

I could not learn anything about Jenifer. Authorities said they have turned up no other alias, and he has not a single other arrest in Maryland with that name. He doesn't appear on other public records available, and the public defender's office told me they have not assigned an attorney to his case.

The sheriff of Frederick County and overseer of the jail, Chuck Jenkins, said Jenifer is being housed in a group cell with bunk beds. Jenkins once ate a meal at a shelter during an undercover investigation and told me his prisoner "made the right choice" in terms of food - up to 32 different meals rotate through the detention center cells - but that overall, "he's probably finding the accommodations a little different than he thought they would be."

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