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Archive for Sunday, June 30, 2002

s loitering problems

June 30, 2002

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Neighbors' worries started even before the Lawrence Open Shelter opened last week.

Memories of last summer, of homeless drunks sleeping on front porches and urinating in public, were still fresh in the minds of those who live near the shelter at St. John's School, 1208 Ky.

"We had loitering at all hours of the day," recalled Laura Palmer. "The neighborhood had become the front porch for the drunks. We felt under siege."

Like neighbors' fears, this year's intrusions started before the shelter opened Tuesday night.

As soon as news spread that the shelter would open for a second summer  and that those who were intoxicated would be allowed inside  homeless people began gathering at night in South Park on the west side of Massachusetts Street.

Some didn't wait until night to show.

About 10:30 a.m. last Sunday, Toni Retonde was in the park with her 2-year-old grandson. A group of people suddenly appeared.

"Then out came the beer cans and a bottle of tequila," Retonde said.

She informed a police officer in a patrol car she saw parked nearby, and the officer made the people leave the park.

No trouble yet

Despite her concerns, Retonde said there had been no shelter-related trouble at her house so far.

That was echoed by Kathy Wright, the shelter's director.

"I've been amazed at how well-behaved they've been," Wright said of the shelter's nightly guests. "Most of them pretty much come in, eat or drink something and then go to bed. I think we're bending over backward to keep them out of sight of the neighborhood."

She noted that telephone numbers had been provided so neighbors could call if they had trouble with shelter guests.

Though there was an open shelter at the school gymnasium last summer, city permission was needed before it reopened this year. The city required the shelter to obtain an insurance policy that would cover damage to neighborhood properties.

The city is limiting occupancy to 30, though the shelter has room for 50 people. On Tuesday night 26 people checked in. Wednesday there were 30. Only "a handful" appeared to have been drinking, Wright said.

"Where are these people going to go if we are not open?" she asked.

Park a popular spot

One place could be South Park. Retonde said that on June 22, the park had attracted a handful of homeless people. She saw several high school-age youths walk past them and past her house on their way to the St. John's Mexican Fiesta. She overheard one of the girls talking to her companions about the homeless people.

"That guy is really messed up  he's really scary," Retonde recalled the girl saying. "That's ridiculous for kids to have to be subjected to that."

Tuesday  the night the shelter opened for the summer  Retonde saw a few homeless people in the park after 10 p.m. That is the cut-off time for being admitted to the shelter.

But the intrusions on private property are of more concern to neighbors.

Retonde recalls waking up one morning last summer and finding five people sleeping on her front patio. Other times, she found them sleeping elsewhere in her yard.

Then there was the time a drunk fell down in front of her house, got up and tried to get into her car.

Last summer Retonde's daughter, who recently graduated from high school, arrived home from work late at night.

"She'd call me on the cell phone because she was afraid to get out" of her car, Retonde said.

St. John's neighbors shouldn't see a repeat of last year's problems, said Mary Easterday, volunteer food coordinator at the shelter. She said she had been at the shelter two nights last week and there were no problems. She noted that the shelter opened early one night because of an approaching storm.

"This year we have explained to them (homeless) that they should respect the neighborhood, and their conduct may determine whether the shelter continues," Easterday said. "We've made a lot of changes. They can't go outside and smoke unless they have someone to monitor them. If any of the neighbors have any concerns at all, they should call us so we can send someone out or call the police. So far nobody has called that I know of."

More police calls

Police calls for service went up last summer in the neighborhood, Palmer said. She asked Lawrence Police to compile the number of calls for the 200 block of West 12th Street and the 1100 block of Vermont Street. In 2000 there were six calls, she learned. In 2001 there were 36. She said she thought the people attracted to the shelter were the reason for most of them.

Ted McFarlane, former deputy chief with Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical, owns a house that has been turned into apartments near St. John's. His daughter lived in one of the apartments. After last year, McFarlane decided that if the shelter returned this summer his daughter would move elsewhere. She did.

"I think it's unbelievable how this has gone," said McFarlane, now director of Med Act in Johnson County. "To believe these people are all going to be in by the 10 o'clock closure  I just think it's so nearsighted."

Despite her concerns, Retonde is optimistic.

"I really don't want to be a complainer," said Retonde, who lives in the 1100 block of Vermont Street. "I really hope things work out."

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