Multiple city residents and advocates came to City Council chambers on Tuesday to complain about an incident Monday involving police and homeless individuals in Culliton Park.
They said police confiscated and disposed of items belonging to homeless people who congregate in the park or sleep there. Such “sweeps” have occurred before, activist Sean Domencic said. Noting that it was the city’s Welcoming Week, he urged city government to be more welcoming and compassionate toward “our poorest neighbors.”
Carole Kirchner, who lives near the park, said she spoke Monday afternoon with Michelle, one of the park’s regulars, who told her the police had taken her backpack with all her paperwork and ID.
“We have to do better for these people,” Kirchner said.
Nonprofits and individual volunteers are trying hard to help those on the streets, providing them sleeping bags and IDs, and so on, said Milan Koneff, an outreach worker with Tenfold. When those items get thrown away, it’s a setback for everyone involved.
“There are no permanent solutions currently available for these people,” he said. “I have not been able to make a true shelter referral in over a year.”
Asked about the incident, police spokeswoman Stacia Kirchner said in an email that a police officer had observed “messy conditions” at the park the previous Thursday.
The officer “advised a group of individuals to clean up the area, and informed the group they would be following up on Monday,” Kirchner wrote.
On Monday, the officer saw “scattered possessions and other items, including a mattress, in the pavilion next to the children’s playground area,” Kirchner wrote.
“The officer made contact with a group of individuals and advised them to remove their items. There were some unattended items that were not accounted for and were collected by Public Works staff.”
Mayor Danene Sorace said the city is working hard to expand homelessness resources, citing its partnership with the county Homelessness Coalition to add 40 more shelter beds within Lancaster by Dec. 1.
“In addition, we must have clear consistent policies across all of our parks,” she said.
There have been ongoing discussions among city staff and the homelessness coalition about providing lockers where individuals living on the street could store their possessions safely, said Sorace and Rebeccia Geiser, deputy director of health, housing and community development. However, careful management and supervision would be needed to ensure the lockers are used appropriately, and “that is a challenge that we have not yet been able to resolve,” Geiser said.
Culliton Park is part of the neighborhood served by the SoWe neighborhood revitalization organization, which has been supportive of Costarella’s efforts. SoWe Director Amos Stoltzfus declined to comment on Monday’s incident.
Hand Up Partners
Michelle, the woman Kirchner mentioned, is a participant in Hand Up Partners, an initiative started by grassroots outreach volunteer Dave Costarella. She picks up trash daily in Culliton Park and on Water Street.
On Tuesday evening, Costarella passed out copies to City Council members of a recent Facebook post he wrote about Michelle.
Hand Up Partners is working, he said: Binns, Culliton, Reservoir and Stork Corridor Park are all being cleaned and the “transformation in the cleaners on a human level has been amazing.”
On Wednesday, a Hand Up Partners group organized by Costarella conducted a cleanup of the blocks around Culliton.
Domencic has made more than a dozen appearances before City Council over the past year calling for a “right to rest” policy allowing people to shelter themselves and sleep in city parks unhindered. On Tuesday, he accused City Council, the mayor and police of “oppressing the homeless” and of pointing to each other and the county when he confronts them about who is to blame.
His wife, Monica, contrasted the abundance enjoyed by many city residents with the scanty belongings of the homeless. She said that as a young mother, she is comfortable in the park as it is.
“Do not use me as an excuse” to crack down in the name of safety or accessibility, she said.
Korman said police are not singling out homeless individuals for enforcement.
“Everyone needs to adhere to park rules,” she said.
Officers frequently give verbal warnings before enforcement actions for violations are initiated, she said.
“The Police Bureau remains committed to keeping our parks safe by responding to calls for service and addressing risks to the health and safety of the general public,” she said.