Fountain incident puts spotlight on homeless issue

Buy Photo Dana Jensen/The Day Mercedes Vona, 10, of Mystic, left, and Lili Kane, 7, of Groton, run under the whale tail fountain last month.

New London - Tuesday morning, two downtown office workers were enjoying their coffee break on the Parade plaza at the foot of State Street.

Susan Mumford and Gayle Boudreau love the openness of the redesigned space, the flowers spilling out of pots and the water flowing over the whale tail sculpture.

They were disappointed when the city shut off the fountain this weekend after an intoxicated homeless man was discovered last week washing off in the fountain after defecating in his pants. But they were not surprised.

They said they have seen people drinking, urinating and fighting on the Parade.

"I know they're trying to make it nice and attract people here,'' Boudreau said. "But who wants to come here and read a book if you have drunk people falling down the stairs or yelling at you?''

Early Friday morning, Deputy Police Chief Marshall Segar was driving by when he saw a man in the fountain.

Andrew Cook, 47, who has no fixed address, had defecated in his pants and was washing himself off in the fountain, police said. He was taken to the hospital for an evaluation and was charged with disorderly conduct. He was also arrested on an outstanding warrant for second-degree threatening.

Hours later on Friday, more than 100 people gathered around the Parade to attend the season's first farmers market, enjoy noontime entertainment and watch the water flowing over the new whale tail fountain. The fountain was turned on May 21.

The scene was exactly what city officials hoped for after a $10 million redesign that opened up the Parade and created a new public plaza.

But the fountain, which is equipped with a chlorination and filtration system, was shut off over the weekend. The city is evaluating the water quality before turning it back on.

City Manager Denise Rose told councilors Tuesday that the city is taking steps to address the problem, including adding surveillance cameras to the Water Street Parking Garage to monitor the Parade and posting signs that advise the public not to drink the water or bathe in it.

On Monday, residents complained at the City Council meeting about people loitering on the Parade, igniting a debate over what to do about the city's homeless population.

Councilor Michael Buscetto III said that police and fire officials have been dealing with people he called "frequent fliers," who urinate and defecate on the Parade and wash up in the whale fountain. He called for greater supervision over the city's homeless population.

"This has to be rectified as soon as possible,'' he said.

"The homeless issue is always hovering,'' Mayor Martin Olsen said Tuesday. "Many folks are functioning within the system, but there are those who are not abiding by the rules."

On Tuesday, police had stepped up patrols around the Parade and, at one point, an officer questioned two men sitting on the steps, asking what they were drinking and sniffing a bottle of water to make sure it didn't contain alcohol. Neither man, both of whom said they were homeless, was breaking the law, and they were not told to move on.

They denied that a fellow homeless person had used the fountain as a toilet or a shower.

"We don't (defecate) where we play,'' said David, 62, who would give only his first name.

But Cathy Zall, executive director of the Homeless Hospitality Center, which runs a day facility and 50-bed homeless shelter in the city, confirmed that the man who was arrested was a regular at the shelter. She added that only a few homeless people cause a majority of the problems.

She has been meeting with the police and fire departments and city officials to come up with a plan to stem the damage done by a few.

"We are not a police state. We are a free society,'' she said. "We have to deal with each problem as it comes up. ... I don't think we should jump to overgeneralize what the problems are."

The homeless have every right to sit on benches at the Parade, she said, as long as they are not creating a disturbance.

"Being homeless is not a crime,'' she said.

Rocco Basilica, president of the firefighters union, said the department is working with Zall and others in the city to address the few who are most often in need of emergency services.

"We are trying to be proactive with homeless people and people who are intoxicated in public,'' he said. "We are trying to provide the best care we can for them to get additional services for those who call more often."

Penny Parsekian, executive director of New London Main Street, which has worked for years to improve downtown and often hosts events, including the Friday lunchtime "Previews on Parade,'' said she did not like the way The Day handled the story about the whale fountain.

"The only setback here is having a headline like that in the paper. It degrades the city so much,'' she said. "To say the fountain has become a toilet in a headline smacks of yellow journalism."

She called Friday's lunchtime event beautiful and a home run for downtown.

"I'm not blaming the paper (for what happened),'' she said. "I'm blaming the paper for sensationalizing it."

k.edgecomb@theday.com

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