After hearing reports of increasingly aggressive transients harassing downtown employees and their customers, the board of the Downtown Sarasota Alliance (DSA) decided to take an equally aggressive approach to fighting the problem.
DSA board members are asking the Sarasota Police Department if it will join them in asking the city to remove all park benches downtown.
“When I walk down First Street, I have to walk through the gauntlet of homeless people sitting on benches,” said Ernie Ritz, DSA advisory board member. “There’s no reason to have the benches.”
Storeowners along First Street say their customers have been commenting that aggressive transients appear to be more of a problem now than in the past.
“People are staying away, because (transients) are traveling in packs,” said Eileen Wallace, DSA board member and owner of Write-On Sarasota. “They’re keeping people out of the stores.”
An incident last week at Juno and Jove is responsible for spurring the DSA into action. A lone female employee was inside the store Oct. 27, when a homeless man walked in yelling. 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 both were yelling at the employee.
According to other storeowners on First Street, that was not an isolated incident.
“I’ve been here for four years, and the problem is getting worse,” said John Schielke, owner of Petropolis. “I refuse to let my wife work here anymore.”
Lt. Jeff Karr has been at the forefront in combating the transient problem for the Sarasota Police Department. He spoke during the DSA’s Nov. 4 meeting about bench removal. He said he was hesitant to take out all downtown benches, because other people use them, too.
Karr did say he sees some areas in which bench removal might help, including First Street, Central Avenue and some of the benches at Five Points Park.
He’s clear, though, that the department can’t prevent anyone, including transients, from sitting on a bench.
“If they’re not breaking the law, they can sit there,” Karr said. “We can’t target lifestyle. We can only target behavior.”
Karr said of the 1,000 to 1,200 transients in Sarasota County, only about 50 are causing the problems.
The city has previously tried to prevent transients from hanging out on downtown benches.
About two years ago, handrails were placed in the center of many city benches, so it would be impossible to lie down on them.
But storeowners say that hasn’t fixed the problem, and they are looking for help.
“I talk to people at Whole Foods, and they say, ‘Oh, he’s harmless,’” Wallace said. “That’s not the point. They scare customers.”
Contact Robin Roy at [email protected].
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City Manager Bob Bartolotta said if any disciplinary action is warranted against Abbott and the other police department and city employees involved, it will be issued by Nov. 20.