- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July 28—HAVERHILL — City officials say they will inspect the Merrimack Street parking deck more frequently, after a homeless man was found sleeping on a mattress inside a stairwell there.

Officials said there was also evidence someone was living inside a area under one of the stairways connecting the upper parking deck to the ground-level parking garage. The area is blocked by a grate, but someone broke a lock to get inside, officials said.

“Now that we are aware that someone was living there, we’ll be periodically checking,” said David Van Dam, Mayor James Fiorentini’s chief of staff.

City Councilor Thomas Sullivan said he first learned that someone may have been living inside one of the stairwells when talking with a Public Works Department employee.

Sullivan said he notified the mayor’s office to look into people living in the garage.

“I knew it needed to be addressed immediately, so I let the mayor know,” Sullivan said. “My concern is that it’s an inappropriate use for a parking deck and we need to be more vigilant of monitoring, securing and controlling it.”

Fiorentini said the city reopened the parking garage stairwells about seven years ago at the insistence of the city’s Fire Department, which considered the stairwells an escape route in the event of an emergency at the garage, which has a lower and an upper deck.

“We had a person working on cleaning the garage … as soon as pay-for-parking went in three years ago, but the man left for a full-time job earlier this year,” Fiorentini. “We need to put someone on full time, but we don’t have the revenues from the parking program at this time.

“We will have people checking the parking garage, but we need someone working full time cleaning the parking garage and all of downtown,” Fiorentini said. “We have a meeting with the council in August and plan to ask for an increase in parking fees to pay for this and other things. We want the parking garage to be as clean as it can be and we don’t want to go back to the days when we didn’t maintain it.”

Van Dam said he toured the parking garage with police on the afternoon of July 17 and encountered a man sleeping on a mattress near the bottom of the stairwell in the left, front corner of the garage.

Van Dam said the man appeared to be in his 50s and that after police woke him up, the man appeared to be lucid and alert.

“We asked him if he needed a place to stay and he said yes, so police helped contact Mitch’s Place,” Van Dam said about the emergency shelter on How Street that is operated by Emmaus Inc. “Police told him that he’d be trespassing if he returned and took down some information. We were looking to clear out anyone living there, but also we want to find them a place to live, which is a priority for the mayor.”

Van Dam said the man appeared to be homeless.

“The goal of the city is to take care of its people and, if we find homeless people, we want to find them shelter,” he said.

Van Dam said he called in the ServPro company to clean the area and remove the mattress.

He said the city also called in ServPro several weeks earlier to clean stairwells in the parking garage that were littered with garbage and smelled of urine.

Van Dam said that after the man on the mattress left, Van Dam continued his investigation and found evidence that someone may have been living inside an area enclosed by a metal gate. It’s similar to a small room and is located under a stairway in the the right rear corner of the parking garage.

“There were blankets and other things indicating someone may have been living there,” Van Dam said. “It (the enclosed area) has metal grates in front of it that are normally locked, but it appeared that someone got in and was living there.”

Van Dam said the area was contaminated with feces and smelled of urine.

“That’s why we had ServPro use bio-hazard suits to go in there …. We didn’t know what was in the rolled-up blankets,” Van Dam said.

There are similar areas in the parking garage, but all of those were still secured by locked metal gates, Van Dam said.

“This was the only one that was open,” he said.

“We’re looking into the possibility of permanently closing off these areas,” Van Dam said, noting that he is also looking to find out what the purpose of these gated areas are in connection to the design of the parking garage.

He said that after finding recent evidence of people living in the parking garage, city employees will be checking these areas so residents and visitors to the city can use a clean parking area.

“We definitely want to keep these areas clean,” Van Dam said. “Our goal is to protect our employees as well, which is why we use ServPro.”

Sullivan said that in addition to cleaning the parking garage, the city has arranged for a graffiti removal crew from the Essex Sheriff’s Department to come to Haverhill to remove graffiti from the walls of stairwells in the parking garage.

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