Homelessness and businesses collide

How area establishments cope with homeless situation in the community

April 23, 2013
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Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter
Customers stand in line to place their lunch orders at Popcorn Willy on North Main Street in Washington Thursday. Order a Print
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Katie Roupe / Observer-Reporter
How Lee employee Maggie Lin talked to the Observer-Reporter about the loitering and theft her business has to deal with. Order a Print

Washington police don’t officially track the number of crimes committed by the homeless or transients.

But city police Capt. Robert Wilson said officers routinely deal with members of that population for misdeeds ranging from loitering to public drunkenness, theft and assault.

It’s an issue for business owners throughout the city, where homelessness and business collide. The contingent of homeless that asks for money, making shoppers uncomfortable, or steals from stores can impact the amount of dollars in merchants’ coffers and affect a neighborhood’s reputation.

Wilson said the department regularly fields complaints from business owners along West Chestnut Street and Jefferson Avenue. Most of the time, the calls are about panhandling and loitering – the city adopted ordinances prohibiting both years ago – but there have been some serious incidents.

In March, a homeless man who formerly lived in Allegheny County grabbed $79 from a cash register at How Lee Chinese Restaurant in the Jefferson Court Plaza on West Chestnut Street before employees and the owner tackled him. Earlier the same day, police believe, the man stole items from a CVS store and a cellphone from a resale store.

“There are (homeless) people here every day, and they dig through the garbage cans, Dumpsters and ashtrays. They make their rounds,” said Maggie Lin, a How Lee employee. “Most of the time, they’re harmless. Our customers still come; it hasn’t affected that.”

Other recent incidents attributed to homeless and transient offenders include the robbery of a pregnant Union Grill waitress outside the restaurant in daylight, and attempted robberies at Vocelli’s Pizza and Shorty’s Lunch.

Mayor Brenda Davis said the city’s resources for the homeless – which include emergency shelters like the City Mission and transitional housing – attract the homeless and transients to the area. In many cases, people from outside the city who have court orders to stay at a halfway house relapse and end up on the street.

“It’s an ongoing problem. Obviously, it’s good that we have these programs available, but it puts a burden on our resources when these individuals from outside of the area come to the city for the programs and then become involved in drug- or alcohol-related crimes,” said Davis. “When we have tourists come from outside the area, it doesn’t portray who we are.”

Washington Business District Authority’s Main Street Manager Pete Stefansky said the homeless have not driven away business on Main Street, but merchants are well aware of the homeless who sleep around the courthouse and leave their bags stuffed with possessions in the doorways of businesses and on benches.

According to merchants, the same group of chronic homeless congregates every day, and they know them by name.

Main Street store owners – many with “no loitering” signs in their windows – often keep an eye on the homeless to make sure they are OK, and usually don’t call the police or ask people to leave unless they are being disruptive. They agree that homeless loitering can affect business, but pointed out it hasn’t had much impact.

“If it makes a customer uncomfortable and they say something, we’ll say something to (the homeless person) and they’ll go do their business and come back later,” said Becky McGill of Dragich’s Main Street Market.

Owner David Dragich offered a different perspective. “We don’t have a ton (of homeless), but to me as a business owner, they are a nuisance. They scare people, and they drive people away. When you bring people to the city and you see a homeless person sitting on a sidewalk smoking cigarettes with their plastic bag of goodies beside them, it doesn’t make a good impression.”

Mark Buxton, owner of Popcorn Willy on Main Street, said the homeless cause few problems for his business.

It’s true, they wander the sidewalks, sometimes panhandle and sleep in back alleys, “but if it stays like it is, it’s really not a problem for us,” he said.

Scott Ward of Home Hydroponics on Main Street said he balances compassion for the homeless with maintaining a clean and pleasant storefront.

“I believe customers are less likely to walk into a store that makes them feel uncomfortable because people don’t like to deal with (the homeless),” said Ward, who, along with owner Susan Kirstein, has given money and food to the homeless who come inside the store.

But moving the homeless doesn’t solve the problem because they gather in other places, store owners said.

Kirstein knows the “not-in-my-backyard” mentality won’t work, and said the solution is getting the homeless into homes and addressing the issues that landed them on the street.

Police do their best to balance the rights of the homeless with the needs of the businesses; one homeless man said a police officer recently gave him a sandwich.

“The county has agencies in place. When we run across a homeless person, we ID them to make sure they’re not wanted anywhere, then ask them if they need a place to stay and talk to them about where they can go,” Wilson said. “Usually, they decline.”

Donna Bussey, director of public relations for the City Mission, said Main Street store owners have called the mission for emergencies. In one case, a businessman walked to the mission to report that a homeless man he often spoke to wasn’t responding to him and looked ill. The homeless man would have died within hours if he had not received medical treatment as a result of the store owner’s concern, Bussey said.

Dragich’s McGill deals with the homeless people she encounters at the store with dignity and kindness.

“You treat everybody with respect, whether they’re homeless or not. You don’t know what their situation is,” McGill said. “It could be you tomorrow.”

Karen Mansfield is an award-winning journalist and mom of five who has been a staff writer for the Observer-Reporter since 1988. She enjoys reading, the Pittsburgh Steelers, a good glass of wine and nice people.

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