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County Faces Delicate Situation With Homeless Man At Construction Site

By Aaron Kraut

Wednesday - 6/19/2013, 12:35pm  ET

Construction at 8300 Wisconsin AvenueConstruction-related disruptions in rapidly developing downtown Bethesda are nothing new, but Montgomery County and the developer of an apartment complex being built on Wisconsin Avenue are facing a particularly difficult situation.

The county is working to get a homeless man, known as Tom, to move away from the prominent spot where he stays and stores his belongings at 8300 Wisconsin Ave., where developer StonebridgeCarras is building a 359-unit apartment complex with a 50,000-square-foot Harris Teeter grocery store.

Tom stays on the sidewalk at the northeast corner of the property along some construction fencing, visible to all travelers into and out of downtown Bethesda.

Many are concerned for his safety. Construction crews will begin controlled explosions in July to blast through dense rock at the site. Those blasts and drilling work might occur as close as five feet to the sidewalk.

Montgomery County officials can’t commit Tom to a hospital for mental health evaluation unless it is proven he is a danger to the safety of himself or others, according to Ken Hartman, director of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center. Bethesda Cares, the county’s homeless service provider for the area, has reached out and encouraged him to move.

If he doesn’t, Hartman said the county will have to figure out another way.

Excavation at 8300 Wisconsin Ave. typically starts promptly at 7 a.m. with intermittent drilling that can be heard in surrounding apartments along Battery Lane and Rosedale Avenue. Dump trucks full of dirt leave the site. Contractors are moving power lines underground.

Tom said he has been homeless for five years. He declined to say much else about his situation, but indicated he had no ill will toward the construction crews working feverishly just feet away.

“His condition makes it so he feels safe being visible,” Hartman said.

Tom’s safety has come up at two recent community meetings, including the Woodmont Triangle Action Group’s meeting last Friday during which an official from StonebridgeCarras presented a video rendering and construction updates on the project.

Someone joked Tom could be put in one of the 10, two-story townhomes planned for the development, but StonebridgeCarras principal Kevin Cosimano said the issue was no laughing matter.

The developer is working with the county to get Tom some help in order to avoid a dangerous situation. Crews will soon build a cover over the sidewalk and drill rigs will reach as far as 50 feet down to cut through rock.

Working with chronically homeless people, many who have mental health or medical issues, “is frequently a long and very complicated process,” Hartman said.

Bethesda Cares is the nonprofit headquartered on Woodmont Avenue that provides counseling services and connections to housing programs. It has outreach specialists who go out to Bethesda’s homeless, many who sleep near the Metro station entrance, on benches at Bethesda Row and other places near the upscale shops and incoming apartment projects of the downtown area.

Based on a count last year, Bethesda Cares said there were 72 chronically homeless people staying in areas from Friendship Heights to the White Flint Metro station.

Those homeless usually move away from their sleeping spots, blending in to rush hour when people start heading to work around 6 or 7 a.m., said Bethesda Cares outreach specialist John Mendez during a medical survey of chronically homeless last fall.

Bethesda Cares has had success moving chronically homeless into housing programs. In Mendez’s office are signed copies of keys from homeless clients who have been placed into new homes. A few were surveyed in the inaugural Bethesda 100,000 Homes campaign in 2012. Mendez claimed the vast majority have been able to adjust, get into outpatient rehab programs if necessary and stay off the streets.

In other cases, those efforts turned out unsuccessful.

Hartman said Tom has agreed to move. The fencing behind his collection of belongings is starting to sag as the pit of dirt behind him grows deeper. It will one day be home to 850 underground parking spaces.

On Wednesday, Tom was still at the spot. Hartman said the county will continue to monitor as construction ramps up.