NORWALK, Conn. The man said he "didn't even drink" and didn't have anywhere else to go. But the people who love Ryan Park and the children who live near it wanted him and his makeshift tent gone.
"You guys can't sit here and camp out here during the day," Norwalk Police Officer Louis Proto told him, after being called to the park Monday morning because the homeless man had threatened a woman who took his photograph. The man took his tarp off two picnic tables, loaded it and his rugs into a shopping cart and left. He went to the other side of the park, where he still was Monday afternoon.
That homeless people spend much of their time at Ryan Park has South Norwalk leaders Bobby Burgess , Michael Geake and others upset and wondering why nothing is done. "I know you wouldn't find this any other place in Norwalk, all the other parks in Norwalk," said Burgess. "They should not be allowed to sleep in this area."
"Can you imagine if this were happening in Cranbury Park?" asked Michael Geake.
"They wonder why people in South Norwalk say there are inequities," Burgess said. He has heard that a group of homeless people claims Ryan Park as their territory, saying that others need their permission to sleep there. He knows it's hearsay, but it comes from a reliable source, he said. He's also heard that women and children are afraid of the homeless men and it keeps them from using the park.
"I feel sorry for the whole situation, but there's not really much we can do," said Lt. Shawn Wong Won, a community policing officer who deals with the homeless. It's not illegal to be in a public park, he said. Although the park closes at dusk, police can't visit it continually to tell the homeless to leave. They have other things to do.
"Even patrolling the park a little more, I don't think that would do much to get them out of there because they have nowhere else to go," he said.
The homeless man who was grumbling Monday morning said he had been barred from the Open Door Shelter and can't even eat there. "You can go in there if you're not intoxicated," Proto replied. The man said "new staff" wouldn't let him in, although he doesn't drink.
After looking at his picture, shelter staff said they thought they recognized him and if it was who they thought it was, it was true: He had been "kind of barred." The man has a medical condition that causes him to have "a very offensive odor," which he can't control. Others can't stand being near him and he has refused medical treatment for the condition. He has also had a problem paying his dues.
"He's been given many chances," said Bill Okwousa, director of the shelter since March. Although Okwousa insists on sobriety, he says he doesn't bar anyone permanently.
Wong Won said police can make homeless people leave if they are breaking the law by drinking publicly or causing a disturbance. If they did more, the city would be open to a lawsuit. "It's really a delicate line to walk, because as the police department you don't want to go there and violate anybody's civil rights and you know there are people who are fearful of these just because of how they look," he said. "I think that's grossly unfair to some of these folks."
Maybe the park could be fenced, he said. But he is worried about homeless people, who he said have problems most people cannot comprehend.
"We need to get people a little more involved," he said. "We need to provide services and resources to help these folks because they really do need the help."
Do you have any ideas of what can be done to help the homeless?
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