City police issued warnings Wednesday evening to people gathered under the eaves of the County Government Center around Binns Park, advising them that it is considered trespassing if they remain there after sundown.
“Due to an increase in criminal activity and health concerns, the county government requested the police enforce trespassing laws on county property,” city spokeswoman Amber Strazzo said in an email Friday.
A witness said the individuals left after being warned. Strazzo said officers did not issue any citations nor “remove or transport anyone from the premises.”
Dave Costarella is an independent outreach worker and advocate. He posted about the incident on Facebook, saying he later provided food to 29 people scattered around downtown.
“They had no place to be,” he told One United Lancaster.
An ongoing issue
The police action, coming amid a blast of winter weather, is the latest development in a long-running debate among city, county and nonprofit leaders over the population that congregates in the public square in the heart of Lancaster.
Many of the people there are homeless and unwilling to come indoors despite the ongoing efforts of outreach workers. Others have places to stay, but come to the park to sell or drugs or engage in other illicit behavior, observers say.
Binns Park itself is city property and by ordinance is considered off limits after dark. Its perimeter, under the eaves, is county property, and “no trespassing” signs are posted.
In an emailed statement, the county commissioners said: “The county’s position has been unchanged for years — that the city police should appropriately enforce all applicable laws and ordinances.
“The county appreciates the cooperation with city police and the work done by those providing services to the individuals who need it.”
The prospect of increased enforcement had been looming for some time. Issues at the square “vary from repeated violations of park ordinances to more serious criminal behavior,” Strazzo said.
Conversely, she said, there have been concerns about dispersing the park congregants, given that it is one of the few public outdoor spaces that offer at least some protection from rain and snow.
Weather has certainly been an issue this week. Since Tuesday morning, the county’s homeless response system has been under a “Code Blue,” an alert that calls on shelters and other providers to expand outreach efforts and capacity, if possible.
The Lancaster County Food Hub operates an emergency shelter with 80 beds on North Prince Street. On Wednesday night it was at capacity, Executive Director Paige McFarling said.
“The emergency shelter service providers are doing their best to meet the needs of unsheltered neighbors in the frigid weather,” Deb Jones, director of the Office of the Lancaster County Homelessness Coalition, said.
Costarella said in past years there have been enforcement actions like Wednesday’s that scatter homeless individuals in the runup to the “PIT count” — the annual countywide Point-in-Time count of people in shelters or living on the street.
It’s counterproductive, he said: “It seems like a human Easter egg hunt.”
This year’s PIT count is scheduled for next week, the night of Jan. 24-25. Last year’s PIT count included a more intensive effort to locate unsheltered people: 107 such individuals were documented, up from 23 in 2022.