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Growing concerns over homelessness in Hyattsville: How the city is responding

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Posted on: June 6, 2024

By JESS DANINHIRSCH and KAYA BOGOT

“I see myself hanging on, never giving up, holding on to faith and knowing things will go the right way. Even if it takes longer than I expect.”

“I see myself sitting in my own home and visiting Six Flags Park. I have never been and would like to.”

“If I ain’t dead, I want to tell my story.”

These are just a few of the testimonies unhoused individuals gave to a homelessness survey conducted in Hyattsville at the end of 2023, when asked where they envision themselves in a year.

The City of Hyattsville recently hired The h3 Project (“home, health and happiness”) to conduct a survey of homelessness between Nov. 30, 2023, and Jan. 30, 2024, partly in response to complaints from residents and business owners about unhoused individuals who dwell around Queens Chapel Town Center. The District-based nonprofit’s mission is “to create a future in which all individuals – regardless of gender, age, race, religion, or sexual orientation – experiencing homelessness and/or human trafficking are given opportunities to live meaningful and self-directed lives, in homes of their choice, with support and services they need for success,” according to its website.

Question #11 of Hyattsville’s recent homelessness survey
Courtesy of The h3 Project

For the city’s survey, The h3 Project interviewed 64 unhoused people. The organization’s founder and director of outreach, Ami Angell, presented the findings at the March 4 city council meeting. She said that just over three-quarters of the respondents identified as Latino and a vast majority of them were male. Many of the respondents preferred to be interviewed in Spanish.

Over three-quarters of respondents were not from Maryland. While the information was not originally on the survey, 22 people surveyed said they arrived by “coyote,” meaning with the help of someone who smuggles a person across a border. Because of how common this response was, it was added as a choice.

“There was a lot of paranoia that maybe we’re gathering information, we’re going to sell it, or we’re going to deport them or give it to other authorities,” Angell said in the meeting.

Respondents were also asked whether they had a Social Security card, birth certificate or government identification card — all of which are necessary to get a job and housing. A majority of them did not, nor did they have health insurance.

A map of the Queens Chapel Town Center stands on the side of Hamilton Street.
Photo credits: Kaya Bogot

When asked if they would ever consider leaving the state, many of the respondents said they felt attached to Maryland.

“A lot of them don’t want to go out of Maryland. Right now, although they don’t have their employment and they don’t have their case management services, they have a community,” Angell said during the council meeting. “And that community is what is keeping them afloat. And so to them, it’s frightening. It’s frightening to leave that community and not know what’s out there.”

Additionally, according to the survey, only seven of those surveyed had a case manager. Most that had a case manager, however, did not know their manager’s name or their organization. According to Angell, many of the respondents who did not have one said that they wanted a case manager.

Businesses on Queens Chapel Road have a parking lot in the back where homeless people often loiter.
Photo credits: Kaya Bogot

The three leading causes for homelessness among the respondents were a financial crisis, family members and addiction. In this case, “family members” could refer to turbulent relationship dynamics within a family, including issues with substance abuse and a family member not accepting the individual’s sexuality or other identity, according to Angell.

In the past, The h3 Project has worked with clients to help get them back on their feet by providing basic necessities, ordering vital documents, helping people apply for Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), and even reuniting families, according to its website.

Countrywide homelessness data is readily available, so the goal of The h3 Project’s Hyattsville survey was to zoom in on local data to figure out how the city can best serve its unhoused population.

Shakira Louimarre, the city’s first race and equity officer and one of several city employees involved with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, or GARE, emphasized in an interview that The h3 Project’s report only shows a snapshot of specific areas of Hyattsville over a few weeks. The city commissioned the survey from GARE for $15,000.

Louimarre also highlighted the less visible demographics of homeless people that the survey may not have shown, such as aging populations.

“There’s the question of affordable housing, access to jobs, where mental health and addiction fall into the equation, and I think all of those things kind of point to where there are groups that are lacking in resources and may be marginalized,” Louimarre said.

There are no homeless shelters within municipal Hyattsville, though there are several in the county. Only five of the 64 respondents to The h3 Project stated that they have slept in shelters. Cindy Zork, the city’s communications manager, said that while Hyattsville lacks nearby shelters, the city still tries to help by providing food on every third Tuesday of the month in Driskell Park.

A question of safety

Not even two months after the completion of the survey, on March 20, there were four house fires on Gallatin Street believed to be caused by unhoused people who were squatting in unoccupied houses under renovation.

Other community concerns about the well-being of unhoused people, beyond accidental fires, include unhoused individuals’ interactions with local businesses.

Unhoused individuals in Hyattsville often spend their time around Queens Chapel Town Center, an area near the West Hyattsville Metro station with a variety of businesses, shops and convenience stores.

Recently, many people have been occupying an area outside of 3032 Hamilton Street, a vacant storefront. Isael Ortiz, an employee of Hyattsville Spirits & Grill across the street, said that the homeless population asks customers for spare change and sometimes makes people nervous to come in.

Ortiz said that when the police arrive, these individuals often move, only to return once the police leave.

At the Aldi grocery store down the street, manager Romell Harripaul said that the city isn’t doing enough, even when the store calls the police around once a day to remove people from the private property.

“We reached out to the chief of police for Hyattsville at one point last year,” Harripaul said. “They’re not making enough effort to help us. What they’re telling us is just keep calling the police.”

Harripaul, who has worked at the Hyattsville location for five years, said he has taken matters into his own hands, checking the parking lot every 30 minutes and asking loiterers to leave the private property.

Harripaul also said the store is thinking of taking down the trees in the parking lot to discourage people from sleeping under them. He expects to see an increase in loitering as the summer months roll in, a pattern he’s noticed over the years.

Hyattsville Police Deputy Chief Laura Lanham said that the department often responds to calls from business owners and residents asking them to deal with people who are loitering.

“Our goal is absolutely compliance, not enforcement,” Lanham said.

The deputy chief said that in cases of repeat offenders and people who are more difficult to educate or are resistant to changing their behavior, the police department has been able to work with the state’s attorney office to provide more help.

“It’s an issue that the city has heard from the residents, has heard from the businesses, and also is sympathetic to the plight of those people who are suffering from different social ills,” Lanham said.

Moving forward

The city has plans in place to address loitering along Hamilton Street, with its proposal of a “Green Alley” — a revitalized alleyway, which the city asserts will better connect the West Hyattsville neighborhood with local businesses, as well as help keep the area clean.

The Green Alley will be located around Queens Chapel Town Center. It will connect Ager Road and Queens Chapel Road back into the neighborhood. The idea is that a cleaner, greener alleyway would deter loiterers and make visitors and residents feel more comfortable.

The city released a survey, which closed on May 6, to collect community feedback about the project before making final plans. But Zork said that while this is a step in the right direction, it does not directly address the larger issue of homelessness.

“That just means they go somewhere else, so that doesn’t solve the problem,” Zork said. “Even if we’re providing a solution for the businesses and the community members, we need to think about the people who are in probably the worst of the situation.”

Angell, of The h3 Project, said in an interview that her primary recommendation would be to create a bilingual outreach team to build rapport and engagement, which could lead to an easier time obtaining vital documents and helping unhoused individuals become successful members of society.

“Right now they are not being helped in the system. And in fact, I think in most cases, they’re not trusting the system because of the fear of deportation,” Angell said. “It’s really going to take individuals that are willing to spend the time building that rapport and also making those connections with [homeless] centers – so that they can feel that individuals actually care about them, first off, but are also giving them the tools to be able to take that step and towards employment.”

Zork also said that the city does have a case manager, Pedro Sandoval, who can be a “conduit to resources” for unhoused people who reach out to the city looking for help.

While the GARE team’s goal is to identify causes of homelessness rather than provide services, team members are currently in the stage of gathering information from the community, developing actionable steps to address homelessness. Louimarre said they have hosted community listening sessions, and one of the most common actionable steps suggested was as simple as providing public restrooms.

The city has been addressing homelessness by analyzing policing, infrastructure and socioeconomic conditions, according to Zork. While the city does not currently have specific next steps to improve local homelessness, Zork said that the city council is dedicated to finding a solution.

“This is going to take time, and we appreciate everyone’s patience as we work through various solutions, and no one of these elements here is going to be the ultimate solution,” she said. “It’s going to take a lot of input from the community, a lot of effort, and time and money.”


Jess Daninhirsch and Kaya Bogot are undergraduate journalism majors at the University of Maryland.

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