As First Street shop owners and employees grapple with a transient population that they say is getting more aggressive, some are looking for reasons why they are being targeted.
Those stores lie at the nexus of four of the city’s five biggest trouble spots for transient crime — Five Points Park, Selby Library, Starbucks and Whole Foods Market. The fifth is Bayfront Park.
Things came to a head three weeks ago, when an employee’s encounter with two transients inside Juno and Jove spurred downtown groups into action.
The lone female worker was inside the store Oct. 27 when a homeless man walked in ranting. She was able to talk him out of the store, but he came back a short time later. This time as he was yelling, he began to punch his palm with his fist.
The employee felt threatened and called police. Before officers could arrive, the man came back a third time, but this time he had a friend with him. They were both yelling at the employee.
When the Downtown Sarasota Association heard about the incident, they asked to team up with the police department in asking the city to remove all downtown benches, because it believes that’s where transients congregate.
Although Lt. Jeff Karr, of the police department, said he was not in favor of removing all benches, he did say some areas should have benches removed. Those areas — First Street, Five Points Park and Central Avenue — are all adjacent to those affected stores.
Shop owners say incidents such as the one at Juno and Jove are keeping customers away.
“It’s had a huge effect on business,” said John Schielke, owner of Petropolis.
Schielke and other storeowners point to several factors as to why transients frequently populate on First Street.
First is the fact that Five Points Park is nearby. Transients can be seen sitting on the benches at the park throughout the day. A group called Food Not Bombs, mainly comprised of New College students, gives away free food there on a weekly basis.
Second is the availability of Selby Library’s facilities. Transients use the bathrooms, books and computers. There were rumors circulating that the library was even offering services to the homeless, but Sarabeth Kalajian, director of county libraries, said the library is not offering homeless services. She said a retired attorney, acting on his own accord, tries to help the unemployed — not strictly the homeless — find jobs.
Third is the attraction to Starbucks at the corner of First Street and Central Avenue. Again, there have been rumors that Starbucks has offered free coffee refills to anyone with a Starbucks cup. Some storeowners said they’ve seen some transients pull cups out of the trash and take them inside the coffee shop.
But a Starbucks spokeswoman said no one is given free refills, although there is a discounted refill price of 54 cents. She also said used cups are not refilled — new cups are handed out — and that employees usually can recognize whom they’ve already served. Although she said she did not know if used cups had ever been refilled in the past.
Karr said the shops along First Street have an advantage to fighting transient crime and harassment that other downtown businesses do not — their sidewalk is not a public right of way, instead, property owner Casto, a development company, owns it.
That distinction, Karr said, will allow Casto to trespass any problem people from the entire block. Asking the police to enforce a trespass citation in front of just one or two First Street stores would be too difficult, he said.
Pat Westerhouse, Casto regional property manager, said all storeowners have been given permission to ban troublemakers from the entire property, which stretches from Whole Foods Market west to Starbucks.
As the days begin to get darker earlier, some employees have expressed concern about their car-parking arrangements. Whole Foods Market reserves the first floor of its parking garage for its customers and will not allow First Street employees to park there.
They are supposed to park on the second floor of the garage, where there is no security.
“I park behind our back door,” said Patricia Linares, manager at Simply Spoiled Boutique. “They can give me tickets every day. I don’t care. I’m not parking up there.”