Drug addiction, homelessness, forces city to hire community liaison worker

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There is a part of Hagerstown where locals say people are sleeping outside, erecting tents and begging money from motorists at the local gas station.

They say the drug addiction is so bad that they won’t let their children or pets outside for fear of being stuck by needles lying on the ground.

The area around East Washington Street and South Cannon Avenue has been a hot topic between residents and the Hagerstown Mayor and City Council for at least more than a year.

But lately things have gotten worse. City officials and local social service agencies say they have been stymied by bureaucracy and the grip of drug addiction on some people.

Representatives from a dozen social service agencies joined city officials this month to discuss ongoing issues, which one participant said are creating a “terrifying” situation.

The discussion at a July 12 Hagerstown town council meeting followed a previous council meeting in which a group of residents appeared before Mayor Emily Keller and council to complain about the deterioration conditions in the South Cannon Avenue area.

In response, Keller told residents the city would hold a meeting on July 12 to bring together various organizations that address homelessness and public health. Hopefully groups and city officials could start exploring solutions, she said.

What is the city doing to help the residents of South Cannon Avenue?

Those who attended the working session included people from the Washington County Health Department, Washington County Department of Human Services, Reach of Washington County, and Horizon Goodwill Industries.

Although there are local homeless services, Keller said, she sees homeless people walking around at 7 a.m. carrying all their things.

“We’re missing the boat somewhere. It’s very clear here,” Keller said.

“We are drowning in need,” said Brooke Grossman, mission leader at Horizon Goodwill, which helps people transform their lives through education and skills training. (In last week’s primary election, Grossman was leading Ladetra Robinson for the Democratic nomination for the local seat in Maryland’s District 2B House of Delegates in the Maryland General Assembly.)

As part of a possible solution, city officials said they were creating a community liaison position. Hagerstown Police Chief Paul Kifer told Keller and the council that there are various local organizations that work on homelessness, substance abuse and youth violence.

Kifer, who worked on the job description for the position, said he thinks having a community liaison officer on city staff would allow that person to better coordinate available services. Additionally, the community liaison will likely be able to secure grants that individual organizations may not be able to obtain, Kifer said.

City officials said they expected to post the post last week.

Why are neighborhood conditions difficult to address?

Providing services to people in need was a central topic of the meetings.

Those dealing with homelessness and mental health services spoke of people having to go from one agency to another to find the help they need. It can be a heavy burden for a homeless parent who might also have a child with them, especially if they also don’t have transportation, the speakers said.

Some organizations that provide shelter for the homeless may require a background check or drug test. This frustrated Keller, who said there was too much “bureaucracy” to get people the help they needed.

As she’s talked about for years, Keller has been pushing for a 24-hour crisis center to get people the emergency help they need. “A walk-in center would be ideal,” she said.

Representatives from social service agencies said they’re struggling to fill positions to expand the services they provide, and Grossman said many organizations are facing the same budget levels they’ve had recently so as service demands increase.

Containers of Narcan nasal spray lay on the ground in Bixler Alley in Hagerstown on Wednesday, June 29, 2022. Neighbors said drug addiction and other problems in the south of town are "become unreal."

A Washington County Department of Social Services staffer said falling street-level narcotics prices are worsening drug addiction here. Fentanyl pills used to sell for as much as $20 apiece, but now drugs from Baltimore are $6, said Steve Youngblood, deputy assistant director of services for the county’s Department of Social Services.

He said the high from fentanyl doesn’t last as long as heroin, so users know they need to take one about every three hours.

So they “beg, steal, do whatever they have to” to support their habit, said Youngblood, who called the situation “terrifying”.

“That’s what scares me about the city,” Youngblood said.

Complaints from neighbors about conditions in the South Cannon Avenue area have been going on for about a year. Along with drug addiction and homelessness, neighbors have complained of suspicious people bullying them and vacant buildings becoming hotspots for committing illegal acts.

Keller said recently the city has addressed the issues by increasing police lights and patrols, addressing code violations and closing two alleys — Bixler Alley between South Locust and South Mulberry Streets and Matthews Avenue off South Cannon Avenue in front of the Sheetz store – to curb suspicious vehicle traffic on them.

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