By Kate Alexander
SPARROWS POINT – The last two residents of Sparrows Point have been flushed out.
But not before the Census Bureau found them last year, living along the railroad tracks under a highway overpass, with Bethlehem Steel smokestacks as their vista.
The unidentified homeless people have since moved on, but their presence in the area last spring made census tract 4522 the least populated of Maryland’s occupied census tracts.
So the entire demographic breakdown of the tract is this: two non-Hispanic whites, over age 18.
In what was once a thriving residential community, those two people represented the last vestige of a population in this sprawling industrial area. They lived between the noisy traffic above and the pungency of creosote wafting from the railroad ties below.
No longer, though. The tract’s two residents were asked to leave shortly after the census count because it was dangerous for them to be living near the tracks, said Sparrows Point Police Sgt. Paul Gratz.
That they were included in the census count at all was a remarkable feat.
It was the result of a widespread effort to find people with unusual living places, according Robert Schultz, the regional Census Bureau official who oversaw the enumeration of Targeted Non-Shelter Outdoor Locations in Maryland.
On March 29, 2000, scores of counters fanned out across the region during the pre-dawn hours to areas where homeless people had been spotted. With the assistance of homeless advocates, soup kitchen providers and local social services officials, they woke the homeless from their slumbers to have them fill out the census forms. A shower kit was offered as incentive.
“Probably 90 percent of the places we went to (on the street) nobody was there,” Schultz said last year. “But we wanted to get that 10 percent. . .we want to count every single homeless (person) out there.”
Up until 1975, this now people-less tract of land was a bustling company town settled by the Pennsylvania Steel Co. in 1887 and subsequently purchased “lock, stock and barrel” by Bethlehem Steel in 1916, said Baltimore County historian John McGrain.
This neatly arrayed town was once referred to as the “spotless suburb,” McGrain said. The company paid for a school, churches and fire and police departments, but it would not permit a saloon. For that, the workers had go to the city.
“It was a very nice place to live,” McGrain said.
The town was razed in 1975 to make way for a blast furnace, said Bob Crandell, plant property coordinator for Bethlehem Steel.
The county’s planning office claims to have permits for residential units in the census tract where Crandell says the blast furnace now sits. The planning office concedes that it may be wrong.