Homeless Are The Paramount End User of Downtown

June 21, 2010 145 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Downtown's Most Important Consumer and a strategy of misplaced priorities that must be overcome in order to make downtown viable again.



Somewhere along the way, panhandlers, bums, homeless people and the mentally ill have become the most important consumer of downtown. 

Far and away the most important.

 This is not just limited to the number of service providers and facilities set up to serve the needs of or house the most unfortunate level of our society.  (click here: http://www.eshcnet.org/Resource_Guide.htm  for a list of over 70 providers for services, the overwhelming majority of which are located downtown)  Even putting aside the Sulzbacher Center, the Trinity Mission, the Clara White Mission, the salvation army clinics, the numerous labor force outfits and the five major Faith Based feeding programs in the downtown.  Putting aside even the Duval County Jail which houses a huge population of the homeless who are arrested for public urination, trespassing, and panhandling.  Even leaving out of the equation the number of halfway and recovery group homes (an additional 40 in the urban core) whose clients are many times interchangeable with the At-Risk and At-Needs community.

Nearly every business, organization, event, and urban planning project must give them major consideration before they proceed---no matter how unconnected or widely divergent the purpose might seem from serving the homeless and mentally ill.   Even Public Transit and Library Services must build in a process for dealing with their related issues - often to the exclusion of all other customers.

The reader must be asking themselves how this could be possible?

Any downtown end user can easily tick off the numbers of ways without blinking:

1. The business owners and staff must come in early in order to clean human feces and urine from their doorsteps.  

2.  Any group of students has to be led past bands of panhandlers before they can arrive at their field trip destinations - unless dropped off at the front door or care is taken in planning their route. 

3.  The restaurants impose 'customers only' rules to prevent their bathrooms from being used as showers by the street people.  (because of the high level of mental illness, there is a palpable threat to the plumbing as underwear and disintegrating clothing is stuffed down toilet drains, and feces is regularly smeared on walls.)  link here for the TU version of Jerry Moran's knothead story  

4.  None of the many free amenities downtown such as the Trolley service carry signs advertising the products as 'free' in order to discourage the street people from using and monopolizing services.

5.  The Library Bathrooms on all four floors, during almost the entire day, are filled with people showering, shaving and clogging the air with an almost unbearable stench.

6.  Because of the high incidence of criminal pathology and mental illness, the Library also has to maintain a separate list of convicted child molesters and sexual predators and keep their photos posted in order to protect the children who are coming in on a daily basis. 

7.  There are almost no outdoor seating cafes in the downtown because of the incredibly aggressive panhandling that takes place at tableside whenever such ventures are attempted.

 

8.  The Landing, and many other businesses have requested that all park benches be removed in order to prevent the inevitable sleeping, urination and congregating that occurs with bands of panhandlers.

9.  Thousands of customers over the years have been frightened away by the sheer numbers of the panhandlers demanding money, food, or beer.

10.  In extreme cases, the mentally ill are left to defecate on the sidewalk in broad daylight as captured by Jerry Moran of La Cena in his infamous YouTube video.

 

The list could go on and on.  As it grows one becomes aware of a very clear fact. Between all of the agencies serving, helping, and advertising for the needs of the homeless/mentally ill/street community and all of the counter programming that takes place by the rest of the downtown communities, the homeless have become the paramount customer in the central city.   

The obvious (and answered) question is How?...  The better question is to ask Why. 

It is a question that we will return to in a moment.  The answer is appalling and the solution is quite simple.

 But first, we must question the wisdom of letting the near hysterical anti homeless crusade become the defining philosophy of Downtown.  After all, there are some downsides to consider.

 First there is the folly of the merchant's pursuing a campaign of driving away the homeless by making them so physically and emotionally uncomfortable that they are forced to leave.

In the past year alone:

The merchants have demanded that all parks downtown be closed to the public at sundown.  One of them  patrols at dusk to make sure that the parks are empty.

The merchants are demanding that all of downtown be put under 24 hour surveillance in order to prevent the property crimes committed by the homeless at night.

Most of the public bathrooms have been closed to prevent the homeless from using them.

 

The merchants have demanded the closing of all stores that sell beer or alcohol downtown in an attempt to keep the street people from drinking and then peeing on the buildings. 

Merchants have blocked the installation of water fountains and outdoor public bathrooms in order to prevent their use by the homeless. 

And of course, as already mentioned, even the Park Benches along the riverwalk and down the historic streets are being removed in order to prevent the Homeless from sleeping on them.

 These are pretty drastic steps to be taking.  And think about the effects of such policies.

Very simply, anyone who comes downtown will have the same physical and aesthetic needs as the homeless people that the Downtowners are trying to get rid of.

 What makes the homeless people uncomfortable will make paying customers uncomfortable as well.

As it is, a mother of three who decided to come downtown with her children and a perhaps even another family from down the block would find themselves in a downtown where there is no where to sit and rest for a moment without taking all of the kids into a restaurant.

If the four year old needed to go to a bathroom, they would have to hotfoot it down to the landing, or over to the Library, where they would have to stand in line behind all the homeless guys who are also trying to use the only nice public bathrooms downtown.

A group of four young ladies from the Southside are out walking from a party at the Art Museum and they stroll through one of the parks, a little rowdy from cocktails consumed at JMOCA.  It would be an automatic recipe for a night in jail for trespassing in the park. 

Secondly there is the very nature of human nature and the perils of government surveillance.  Aside from the privacy issues, which are extremely important, consider the practical downside of average recreational behavior amongst twenty and thirty somethings.

Drinking in the parking lot, making out on a deserted street, the ocaissional smoking of leaf other than tobacco.  These are part and parcel of our culture.  They are also grounds for arrest if the energy isnt right.   It wouldn't take but a few arrests arising from this type of surveillance before Downtown would be considered a bad idea to go entertain one's self in. Perhaps this isn't a politically correct point of view, but it is nevertheless a realistic one. 

No, No, and again NO.  This approach is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  Except that downtown hasn't even been able to throw out the bathwater.  The numbers of street people in downtown remain remarkably steady because downtown is where all of the service providers are.

Now let us take up the question of why the street people have turned into such a powerful force in downtown.

The basic problem seems to be the conflict between what the homeless people need in order to survive and the need of the businesses and institutions to also survive and prosper.  In the present circumstances, these two goals are mutually exclusive in the same place.

This basic formulation has caused the bitterness, hysteria and incomprehensibly self destructive moves on the part of the downtown community.

But they result from some very simple underlying policies.  To date, no one is willing to budge on matters of philosophy in order to solve the conflict.

Here are the philosophies and the problems that they create.

Policy/Philosophy 1

  No one should get a free ride and every able bodied person should attempt to work. 

Outcome 1

Hundreds of Street People baking in the sun with nothing to do. 

People who are sleeping in the shelters are not allowed to simply 'hang out all day'.   The most likely source of work for a street person is the labor work pools.  They pick up workers at 5 to 530 am.

In order to force people to be out of the shelters in time to make the labor pool pickups, everyone is tossed into the street at 4:30 AM.

They are not allowed back in the shelters until the evening.  Not to use the bathroom, not to take a shower.  Not to simply take a break.

This means that during all available business hours, the homeless staying in the private shelters are forced to take the streets.  Because of the location of the shelters and lack of transportation, none of them are able to go anywhere else but the downtown environment.  This forces them into the business district during business hours.

Policy/Philosophy 2

Any public facility such as bathrooms or water fountains will be destroyed or worse by the homeless and therefore should not be built.

This idea has some background.  Historically, many of the downtown bathrooms were built underground and left unsupervised.  They became havens for crime.  They were all shut down due to public outcry.

 Outcome 2

All of Downtown has become a toilet

There are extremely few public facilities to use, and by the time most of downtown starts to come alive at 9am, the street people have not had access to either water or a bathroom in 4 hours.   By the time the library opens at 10, it has been 5 hours.

Like most places downtown The Library has hundreds of trespassing warrants against the street people, banning them from entering the building.  This does not prevent the hundreds who are allowed in to use the bathrooms for basic hygiene.

Everyone else either has to hold it the entire 12 hours, or they use the bathroom outside.  Hence all the human waste in the bushes and on the doorsteps. 

 

Policy/Philosophy 3

Anything that gives street people a reason or excuse to be downtown and any source of comfort must be removed immediately

Outcome 3 

Downtown has become a forbidding environment for all end users and recreational visitors.  No bathrooms, no benches, no ledges along buildings to sit on, no water fountains, no hanging out in the parks at night. 

 

Policy/Philosophy 4 

The police and/or criminal prosecution is the best way to deal with the problems surrounding the street people. 

Outcome 4

On the table right now are proposals which would completely sacrifice privacy of any sort downtown and install police surveillance everywhere downtown. The merchants and residents have demanded and gotten additional police coverage and the police are filling the jails up with repeat offenders who are getting arrested, released, rearrested, re-released and so on at enormous expense to the taxpayers and no end of unfairness to the street people themselves.  Never mind the net effect that the jail has become a bit of a homeless shelter in the process, instead of a detention center for people awaiting court or serving time. 

Solutions 

Build a no frills day center away from the center of downtown that has bathrooms, where there are books, phones and basic plumbing for showers.  Center all of the not for profit and faith based donations at said day center so that there is an incentive for the street people to migrate there on a daily basis.   Coordinate the center with the Job Junctions programs.   Anytime there is a complaint from the rest of the downtown community about panhandling or other nonsense, direct the officers to drop them off at the day center rather than taking them to jail unless it becomes necessary.

Encourage labor pools with a later start time to stop by the day center.   Encourage the various organizations downtown to select volunteers from the day center to help clean up before and after events.

A day center alone would alleviate a huge amount of the problems.  People object to the extreme odors associated with the homeless.  Available showers and donated clothing would take care of that and alleviate the burden currently being forced upon the Downtown Library.

People object to the sheer amount of human waste deposited on the streets every morning.  working toilets would take care of that.

Reinstall the basic public furniture that appeals to recreational users downtown, including public bathrooms that most major cities have.

 There is no foreseeable future in which the special needs community can be separated from the Downtown totally.  Although this is a strategy that should be immediately started.  Along with Municipal landbanking and the multitudinous churches downtown there is altogether too much property that is off the tax rolls.  However a day center as described would be the cheapest and easiest solution for all parties concerned.  



Originally Published April 1, 2008