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Police focus attention on transients

November 09, 2000

Police focus attention on transients



By KIMBERLY YAKOWSKI / Staff Writer


Authorities say the homeless who have settled in wooded areas on CSX Railroad property in Hagerstown call it Valhalla - a reference to a mythical Norse heaven - where they can gather out of society's sight.

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Many are peaceful. Some drink, some use drugs, some have turned violent, according to Hagerstown City Police.

Within the past 45 days, a homeless man was stabbed, another came close to being set afire and tents have been burned, incidents that have prompted police to vow to keep the vagrants off the property.

No one is sure when the homeless began staying on CSX property but the recent acts of violence have brought the vagrants to the attention of the authorities, said Hagerstown City Police Lt. Jack Hall.

"Typically it's out of sight out of mind - you don't know it's a problem until it's a problem," said Hall.

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City and CSX police officers met Thursday to discuss the problem and decided on a zero-tolerance policy, said Hall.

He said CSX workers will clean up the property by removing trash and supplies from campsites and by posting "No Trespassing" signs.

City Police will come down hard on those caught on the property and committing other illegal acts, said Hall.

CSX spokesman Robert Gould said in a phone interview Thursday that "the city and CSX agree there is a problem."

CSX will get cost estimates and "make a good-faith effort to clean up the property," he said.

A light rain fell Thursday afternoon as police took members of the media to the largest campsite, behind the CSX property off Burhans Boulevard.

To get to the area, the group drove on paved and gravel roads and crossed a narrow bridge. The road was strewn with broken glass and a few large logs.

Hall got out of the police cruiser to move the logs. "They probably put those out there to keep us out," he said.

A man dressed in dirty, worn clothing and carrying a backpack and a beer can approached the police car.

It was Timothy Wilson Cassell, who in October was beaten by another vagrant and doused with kerosene. His assailant attempted to ignite him over a dispute about camping supplies, police had said.

After being questioned by Hall, Cassell was allowed to move on with a stern warning to stay off CSX property.

After two officers arrived to join Hall, the group walked on a rocky path and up an embankment. Below, in a gully protected by a canopy of trees, was the largest campsite.

In September, police counted between nine and 12 tents set up at the site, Hall said.

Hanging from the trees were a variety of items, apparently the possessions of the homeless: Old sneakers, blue jeans, filthy blankets, teddy bears and other stuffed animals, shirts and grapefruit-sized pumpkin decorations. A bag of potatoes dangled from one limb.

Empty liquor and soda bottles dotted the ground. Charred chairs, a bike, a bed, cooking supplies and other items were evidence of a recent fire that the Hagerstown Fire Department determined was arson, Hall said.

In another gully was a campsite with five or six folding chairs set up around the remains of a fire. A dirty comforter on the ground served as a bed for the pet dog of one of the squatters, according to Hall.

A narrow table was propped against a tree, and above it hung a large broken piece of glass. On this makeshift vanity someone had placed an old wine bottle filled with dried weeds and flowers.

There were no homeless men around, but the odor of what Hall said was an inhalant used by some vagrants to get high lingered in the air.

The camps' occupants are primarily men, said Hall. Local prostitutes have said they visit the vagrants but police have found no evidence they live there, he said.

As many as 100 people have been known to live in the camps at one time, with the population peaking in the summer, said Hall.

"I don't think most of them live here year-round. Most are transients that come here for some reason or another," said Hall.

He said the camps make a perfect hideout from society because they are remote. CSX owns about 100 acres of mostly wooded property in Washington County.

"No one would know you were out here," he said.

Hall described the squatters as the poor, those who are anti-social, perhaps mentally ill, and substance abusers who might eat at shelters but aren't allowed to stay if they are using, said Hall.

Hall said he expects the vagrants to move when they realize they will be arrested and have their tents and supplies confiscated by police.

"It's not against the law to be homeless. But it is, if they are creating a problem on private property," said Hall.

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