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Grover Beach business owners say vagrancy-related problems are rising

Grand Avenue chiropractor Dr. Dan Bronstein says he has found syringes in his landscaping and evidence of someone camping in the alley next to his business.
Grand Avenue chiropractor Dr. Dan Bronstein says he has found syringes in his landscaping and evidence of someone camping in the alley next to his business. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Despite the city’s efforts to reduce the number of negative encounters with the local homeless population, some Grover Beach business owners say they are having more problems than ever before.

“I’ve been here for five years,” said Grover Beach chiropractor Daniel Bronstein. “This is the worst it’s ever been. By far.”

Bronstein owns Beacon Chiropractic at Ninth Street and Grand Avenue, an area he says has been plagued by increasing problems with vandalism, aggressive panhandling and public disturbances in the past few months, stemming from a subset of the city’s homeless population.

The Grover Beach City Council considered the topic at its meeting Monday, and directed the city staff to set up a workshop with city business owners to brainstorm ways to address their concerns.

I’ve found hypodermic needles on my property, I’ve found human excrement on my property.

Daniel Bronstein, Beacon Chiropractic owner

“We’ve had fistfights, verbal altercations between homeless individuals, increased drug use — I’ve found hypodermic needles on my property. I’ve found human excrement on my property,” Bronstein said. “My patients say they don’t feel safe anymore, and my employees don’t want to be around once it gets dark.”

Grover Beach has struggled with a larger homeless population than other South County cities and what is perceived as vagrancy-related crime.

According to the 2015 Homeless Point in Time Census and Survey, which measures the size of the homeless population in the county, Grover Beach recorded 158 homeless people during a 24-hour period in January. Of those, 140 where unsheltered and living on the street, in abandoned buildings, cars and/or in encampment areas.

In comparison, Pismo Beach recorded 47 homeless people, and Arroyo Grande had 10 on the same day. (Oceano and Nipomo were included with other unincorporated county areas in the report. The total number of homeless people recorded in those unincorporated areas was 211.)

When people are relegated to living outdoors, there’s a host of problems that go with that, whether it’s trash, or poor hygiene or having no place to go to the bathroom. But you have to understand that those are the result of them having nowhere else to go.

Dee Torres, SLO Housing Connection

Many Grover Beach homeowners have opposed proposals by South County People’s Kitchen and other organizations to offer services to the large homeless population, such as a day-use center or free meals, claiming the services attract criminal activity. That evidence is mainly anecdotal, though the Grover Beach Police Department has in the past said there was a link between increased crime and the transient population.

In 2014, the City Council made dealing with those concerns a priority, instituting new ordinances and police programs aimed at trying to reduce the problems.

Camp broken up

The City Council passed an ordinance in February 2015 that made it illegal to ask for money near banks and ATMs, in front of businesses, in parking lots and after sunset. The city has also installed cameras in traditional “problem areas” across Grover Beach such as Ramona Gardens Park and West Grand Avenue, and increased foot and bicycle patrols in the downtown area.

In September, the Police Department, as part of a multiagency effort involving State Parks, County Parks and local homeless services organizations, broke up a homeless encampment south of the Amtrak Station at the end of Grand Avenue. More than a dozen trespassing citations were issued.

Though the move was meant to uproot that location’s homeless population, Bronstein claims it has actually increased the number of vagrancy-related problems in his area of Grand Avenue.

“It’s getting to the point where people are just picking up and leaving,” he said, adding that at least one former business owner told him the homeless population was a major reason she decided to leave.

Dee Torres-Hill, former director of homeless services for the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County, stressed that a lot of the negative interactions between business owners and some homeless individuals are situations that can’t be avoided when part of the population lives entirely outside.

“Living outdoors is problematic for everyone,” she said. “When people are relegated to living outdoors, there’s a host of problems that go with that, whether it’s trash or poor hygiene or having no place to go to the bathroom.

“But you have to understand that those are the result of them having nowhere else to go. It’s a vulnerable place to be in.”

Torres-Hill — now a volunteer with the nonprofit SLO Housing Connection, which helps homeless individuals and families find permanent homes — said many of the problems would go away if there were a greater push to help those people become housed.

People in crisis

“These people are in crisis, and I think we need to be more empathetic toward them,” said Torres-Hill, who says she gets referrals to help relocate five to 10 homeless individuals and families a day. “I sympathize with the business owners, I really do. But we have to understand that the reality is, these people often don’t have any other place to go. We have to make housing-first a priority.”

Bronstein and a group of fellow Grover Beach business owners have a different opinion. In October, several of them spoke before the council during public comment, asking for stronger ordinances prohibiting panhandling, and forming a community group composed of business owners and residents that would address the vagrancy problems.

“We’ve spent a lot of time and money to fix up the downtown area and make it more attractive to visitors and tourists,” he said. “We’ve spent all this money on this business corridor, but nobody wants to walk on it.”

On Monday, the council directed the staff to schedule a workshop with business and commercial property owners to give them an update on the city’s actions, and to discuss options such as forming a neighborhood/business watch program and implementing other security measures.

The meeting would occur in December or early January, Mayor John Shoals said.

“While we don’t want to step on anyone’s rights, we need to get to a level that makes folks feel like they are safe in this community,” he said Monday.

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