The city of Sarasota has recently endeavored to clear large gatherings of homeless people out of public parks in the wake of complaints from people nearby.
Those efforts have largely been successful, but Main Street merchants say their storefronts have become the new hotspot for many vagrants — and their businesses have been hurt as a result.
Members of the Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association say the 1300, 1400 and 1500 blocks of Main Street have seen a greater homeless presence in recent weeks, and that illegal activity has gone unchecked on the streets. Three downtown merchants appeared at the May 19 City Commission meeting to ask the city to crack down on the issues.
Wendy Getchell is the owner of Lotus Boutique, located at 1451 Main St. She said people on the street harass her customers — not necessarily panhandling, but seeking donations for their palm frond art.
Garbage gathers on the sidewalk and in the bushes in front of Patrick’s 1481. The issues, all together, have impacted her store.
“I can’t tell you how many times a day I have my customers come in and say, ‘Can’t something be done about this?’” Getchell said. “‘What is wrong with our city that they allow this?’ You know, I don’t really have a good answer for that.”
Ron Soto, president of the Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association and member of the Downtown Improvement District, said the city needs to take action to help downtown businesses. He said if shoppers begin to associate downtown Sarasota with homelessness, it could drive business elsewhere. Soto asked City Attorney Robert Fournier if he could craft new ordinances to better target the issues associated with homelessness.
“It has gotten to be out of control,” Soto said. “We need to have tighter ordinances controlling the situation, and we need to have our city attorney write these ordinances to keep people from the panhandling and all the other problems that we’re having.”
Fournier said when police officers have been stationed in public places such as Five Points Park or J.D. Hamel Park, the homeless population generally disperses. He takes that as a sign that the ordinances are effective, but the existing laws need to be enforced.
“Generally speaking, I don’t think it’s a question of inadequacy of ordinances,” Fournier said. “I think the answer is having more law enforcement in place downtown.”
With the police budget already stretched thin, downtown merchants have looked at funding alternative methods of monitoring for issues. The Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association has hired a private security guard to patrol along Main Street daily.
Fournier said it’s possible to help downtown businesses with the issues that plague them, but he doesn’t know what exactly he can change in the ordinances after hearing from the merchants last week.
“The funny thing about that is, nothing was specific,” Fournier said. “It was just said: ‘We need ordinances.’ What (ordinances)?”
The city currently has ordinances preventing lodging outdoors, aggressive panhandling and public urination and defecation. Fournier said he understood the complaints from downtown businesses, but those issues aren’t necessarily always illegal.
“We have ordinances that are working that are in place,” Fournier said. “I’m always willing to look at them or refine them if we have a particular record of a problem.”
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