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‘My Job Is Not to Help Them': Business Districts Increasingly Target Homelessness

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons

As street homelessness rises from North Park to Pacific Beach, business districts across the city are increasingly stepping up to combat it, leading to a patchwork of strategies that can complicate efforts to address the problem.

Business owners are demanding action in the absence of a formal regional or city plan to address the growing crisis. And they’re looking to their business districts, which pull in annual fees to represent and promote businesses in more than a dozen neighborhoods across the city, to help.

But some of those groups have taken steps that do more to displace homeless folks than help them get off the street.

Security officers hired by business districts order homeless folks to leave storefronts in Hillcrest and Ocean Beach, while outreach workers offer help in City Heights and downtown neighborhoods.

The approaches differ but the motivation behind the business groups’ efforts is consistent: There’s a need to better deal with homeless folks, and business groups can’t afford to wait for government officials to help.

The latest business district response to homelessness is in Pacific Beach, where leaders of that neighborhood’s business improvement district plan to combine safety patrols with an initiative to hire homeless residents to clean Pacific Beach streets.

The Pacific Beach program follows years of complaints about homeless folks approaching customers and workers, and a packed October town hall where residents and business owners appealed for a change.

Pacific Beach hotelier Elvin Lai, who organized the October gathering, started advocating for a response years ago after he said a guest at his hotel was attacked after confronting four homeless people cursing within earshot of his family’s oceanfront room.

“Instead of spending five nights with us, he spent a night in the hospital,” said Lai, co-owner of the Ocean Park Inn.

Pacific Beach complaints recently hit a breaking point.

Discover Pacific Beach later pulled together $40,000 and received another $20,000 from City Councilwoman Lorie Zapf’s office to start the one-year pilot program. They’ll need to raise more to keep the program going.

Now the program’s ramping up. Organizers said that their goal isn’t to push homeless folks out of Pacific Beach. They’re contracting with Pacific Beach Street Guardians, a nonprofit that plans to put six homeless folks to work through a cleaning contract with Discover Pacific Beach. A separate team of safety ambassadors is set to patrol the district, educate business owners about their rights and homeless’ folks rights, and to refer the homeless to help.

Sara Berns, executive director of Discover Pacific Beach, said her group will be regularly evaluating the security program to ensure it strikes the right balance. She said they want safety ambassadors to step in when someone’s causing a nuisance or doing something illegal rather than hassle people who are simply homeless and need help.

“We want to help our business members and also help the homeless population in our own community and not just push the problem around,” Berns said. “That’s what sometimes happens when you’re looking at security or enforcement only.”

Yet that’s exactly what some other business districts are doing.

Last summer, the Hillcrest Business Association hired a security firm to urge homeless folks who may be unruly or settle outside businesses to move along.

“We encourage them to go somewhere else through annoyance,” said Ben Nicholls, the organization’s executive director. “We sort of do to homeless people what they do to our customers.”

The Hillcrest group had previously hired nonprofit Alpha Project to do outreach in the area, which Nicholls acknowledges did more to solve homelessness than the current approach. Alpha Project has said it helped more than 30 people move off the street during its year of outreach in Hillcrest.

“We’re not solving their problems and helping them, but my job is not to help them,” Nicholls said. “It’s to help my members, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Before the outreach effort ended last year, Nicholls said his board pushed to hire security workers.

Around the same time, Nicholls wrote a letter to former City Councilman Todd Gloria, whose office had set aside $20,000 for the Alpha Project pilot program, proposing that outreach be expanded to cover each of the city’s older commercial districts. Nicholls wanted the city to pick up the entire tab.

The pitch for citywide outreach teams didn’t take hold despite similar letters to city officials from the City Heights, Mission Hills and Pacific Beach business districts.

But months later, City Heights inked its own contract with Alpha Project with the help of funding from then-City Councilwoman Marti Emerald.

Enrique Gandarilla, executive director of City Heights Business Association, cheered the outreach efforts in his area since.

His organization once had security workers of its own but Gandarilla’s since decided that was the wrong approach. Now he’s hoping local governments can better coordinate outreach efforts in his neighborhood and others.

“There clearly needs to be more of a comprehensive approach and leadership on a local level to make this happen,”Gandarilla said.

Kris Michell, who leads the Downtown San Diego Partnership, which has for years had its own outreach, security and cleaning programs, said she’d like local governments to do more to reach out to those who live on the streets.

“While we are encouraged by the city and county’s collaboration and focus on homeless issues, a more robust and coordinated outreach effort would be highly impactful,” Michell wrote in a statement. “It would ensure consistency in how clients access services, and relieve scarce law enforcement resources.”

Some cities have taken a more comprehensive approach to outreach. Philadelphia, for example, deploys teams around the clock to get to know the city’s homeless population and try to persuade them to get help.

San Diego, meanwhile, has for years had a police Homeless Outreach Team respond to complaints and try to help particularly vulnerable homeless residents. But the team is often spread thin and doesn’t have the capacity to work throughout the city on a regular basis.

Two San Diego homeless advocates said a broader approach with trained, non-police outreach workers could be a game-changer.

Michael McConnell, an activist who’s been particularly critical of Hillcrest’s security focus, said San Diego’s current approach to engaging with homeless people fosters disagreement between communities and frustration among the homeless, which makes it harder to persuade them to get off the streets.

“All these business districts can take all the steps they want but unless there’s regional outreach in all the hot spots, all we’re going to do is move people around,” McConnell said.

Amy Gonyeau, chief operating officer for Alpha Project, emphasized the importance of trained outreach workers who can link the homeless with resources and build rapport rather than simply encourage them to move on.

“We address issues in a very different way than a security guard,” Gonyeau said.

There are some planning efforts under way that could pave the way for a bolstered regional approach to the problem.

The Regional Task Force on the Homeless, the group that oversees efforts countywide to address homelessness, has started work on a three-year plan to combat homelessness in San Diego. It’s hoping to release the plan this summer.

And Stacie Spector, who Mayor Kevin Faulconer hired last fall to coordinate the city’s response to homelessness, is working on her own plan.

“We have many short-term projects in process and the development of a long-term recommendation – both tracks significantly impacting (business) districts,” Spector wrote in an email last week.

One of those short-term goals is to bolster the 2-1-1 information line’s capacity to connect homeless folks in need with open shelter beds around the clock, whether a homeless person or a business owner calls. Another is to add hundreds more shelter beds to try to temporarily house more folks living on the street.

But Nicholls said the promises and plans, however well-intentioned, don’t satisfy business owners. They can’t afford to wait for them to come to fruition.

“They want immediate results,” Nicholls said. “They need to make the cash today or they go out of business.”

    This article originally appeared in the Voice of San Diego.

    Author:

    Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego.