Owners discuss impacts of homelessness on State Street businesses
A few business owners on lower State Street are sounding the alarm for more police presence in the area, citing disturbances from the homeless population.
In the 500 block of State Street, restaurants and bars are back with full capacity indoors and out, just like before the pandemic.
And the new parklets lining both sides of the street allow for additional capacity the businesses didn’t have before, resulting in more foot traffic of more people who are seemingly anxious to return to socializing in public places — after 15 months without that ability.
Meanwhile, a few businesses in the block reported seeing an increase in homeless individuals asking restaurant customers for money or food.
Kelly Brown, owner of the Natural Cafe in the 500 block, told the News-Press that at his restaurant, the problem has gotten worse than panhandling. Last Friday, he said, one of his cooks required medical treatment after a homeless individual came in through the back door and attempted to steal beer out of the restaurant’s coolers.
Mr. Brown said that when the cook tried to halt the individual, the cook was struck in the face and the suspect fled.
For Mr. Brown, “it has reached a tipping point.”
“Nobody I know over 40 (years old) with kids and family or beyond goes downtown,” he said. “It’s dirty, it’s lawless, it’s a bad scene.”
The restaurant owner said he’s dealt with numerous incidents of the sort over the years — homeless individuals locking themselves in the bathroom to do drugs or take a towel shower, loitering on the patio to finish uneaten food, panhandling and attempting to steal items from the properties.
Mr. Brown said since the reopening has begun post-pandemic, he believes the issue has only been exacerbated. He said he wanted to make an important distinction that “it’s not against the law to be homeless, but it’s against the law to be lawless.”
“Our problems are with the lawless homeless: the alcoholic, (the) drug addict, mentally ill (individuals) … I’m talking about the criminally homeless,” he said.
Safety issues worry the owner, as he said he makes sure all of his managers leave at the end of the day together. He’s nervous for his college-aged employees walking through the parking lot at 10 p.m.
And Mr. Brown worries about his daughter, who manages the State Street location. He said she was backed into a corner by a homeless individual sitting on their patio in the morning.
“There’s a lawlessness downtown that has to be changed,” he said. “The city’s highest priority is to make the city safe, and it’s not safe downtown. It’s not safe for visitors, it’s not safe for employees, it’s not safe for employers. It’s not safe and that’s unacceptable.”
Interim Police Chief Bernard Melekian told the News-Press that the Natural Cafe incident took place at 9:30 p.m. Friday.
Chief Melekian added that he has received calls from people concerned that the police took more than an hour to respond to the incident.
But the hard copy of a complaint obtained by the News-Press documented that the first call received was at 10:15 p.m. that night, and the caller declined assistance. Another call was made at 10:37 p.m. requesting assistance, and officers were on the scene by 10:45 p.m.
While some reported the incident to be a stabbing, Chief Bernard Melekian told the News-Press the homeless individual “punched” the cook, and “he had a small pocket knife in his hand, but it’s not what he used.”
The chief said he will be making deployment changes and implementing foot patrol on State Street “at least through the end of the summer” with varying hours, but generally from 10 a.m. until 3 a.m. the following morning. This additional presence, he said, began patrolling during the day a couple weeks ago, but the department wants to add the nighttime presence no later than July 3 — “probably earlier, certainly no later than.”
“I certainly concur that (there is an) issue of State Street nightlife in general — not just the issues of the homeless folks that are down there — but the whole nightlife issue, particularly, as we reopen our society and State Street remains closed,” Chief Melekian said. “… It does appear, just listening to the radio and looking at the call board every day, we are getting a lot of requests for service down there.”
The felt presence will include the department’s motorcycle officers and officers walking up and down the street, along with rapid response to any disturbances or fights, the chief explained.
“One of the realities is if we can get a sort of orderly social reopening going on is that a lot of those (homeless) folks will simply move on because of the crowds,” the chief said. “We want the State Street reopening to occur, and we think it’ll be good for the city and good for everybody that’s down there — we just want to keep it that way and to that end, we’re going to have a pretty fixed presence throughout the rest of the summer.”
Clay Holdren, who owns Holdren’s Steak and Seafood in the 500 block, told the News-Press that he believes the homeless incidents were “way worse before the promenade got there,” citing increased activity and large crowds that make people feel safer. However, he believes that because of the lines of parklets, the homeless individuals just moved up to the 700, 800 and 900 blocks instead.
“I wish there was a police presence, and I will continue to say it,” Mr. Holdren said. “I’ve been saying it for seven, eight years now …The police make people feel safe and make people make better decisions, and we’ve been asking and asking and asking. And we’ll see them every once in a while and then they’ll disappear for a few months, and (then) we’ll see them again.”
Elsewhere in the 500 block, Laura Knight, the owner of Pascucci Restaurant, said she’s seen a “huge uptick in just the last few weeks” of homeless individuals around the area. She reported the individuals going up to customers’ tables at Pascucci asking for money and food.
“It’s just a tough thing,” she told the News-Press. “We’re all compassionate to the homeless, and they do need shelter and do need money. But we’ve got to get it to them without affecting the tourists … It’s just uncomfortable when people dine outside, and they want to enjoy their meal. They don’t want to be asked for food or money.”
Ms. Knight said she would like to see an increased police presence, along with finding a safe place for the individuals to sleep. The balance, she said, requires a good combination of compassion while maintaining the safety of the customers and employees.
Mayor Cathy Murillo told the News-Press that she, too, supports increased patrols downtown now that the car-free State Street has increased outdoor dining opportunities and foot traffic. In addition, she said the Volunteers in Policing program (the gray shirts) has restarted, and the red-shirted ambassadors serve as more eyes and ears.
The city is working with the county to have a behavioral wellness specialist accompany officers or outreach workers when making calls, the mayor said, to address the challenging mental health issues some individuals are experiencing. However, she added, “more needs to be done in the area,” citing the community’s need for more mental health services and beds with supportive services.
“We also expect some of our homeless to migrate away from State Street as it becomes programmed with family activities and concerts and eventually more housing with residents occupying downtown as their residential neighborhood,” Mayor Murillo said. “These individuals prefer quiet, less populated streets or areas.”
She added that the city’s economic development manager, Jason Harris, has been working with the police department on ways to connect with, educate and help business owners deal with these challenges.
Overall, the common theme was the desire for the safety of restaurant-goers, employees and compassion for the individuals struggling to find food or shelter.
“There’s a host of issues and it’s not simple,” Mr. Brown said. “But the simple, straightforward, out-of-the-gate fix is: Police downtown …
“Police it, make it safe, clean it up. It’s just all it takes.”