Ned Bowman first noticed a change at Pineapple Park in summer 2012.
Before that, Bowman said, there were just a dozen or so homeless people in the park. Now, he said, there are dozens of transients, some who are frequently engaged in drug use and prone to harassing people walking through the area.
“I’ve had a lot of clients state that they feel uncomfortable coming and going here,” Bowman said.
As the owner of Bowman Originals, a jewelry store across the street on Pineapple Avenue, he’s had a firsthand perspective on how the park has changed over the years. As the city has focused on reducing the homeless presence at Five Points Park, Pineapple Park has seen a population influx. Bowman is one of the loudest voices in a relatively small group of nearby tenants, many of whom share his concerns about the park.
Maureen Hoyt, owner of Optional Art 2 Fine Jewelry on Pineapple, said the homeless population at the park also distresses her clients. She’s witnessed what appears to be drug-dealing activity at the park, and said her customers have been verbally accosted on their way to her store.
“For the most part, my clients are middle-aged or older, and they’re frightened,” Hoyt said. “They’re frightened because of the size of the group.”
Rod Warner is a member of the Church Council at First Church, which is located down the block from Pineapple Park. He said the situation at the park has gotten worse in recent months, and that the homeless often cause a sanitation issue by urinating or defecating on private property. Warner said most of the homeless are not causing a problem, but that the issues still need to be addressed.
“We have toddlers and young infants here, people we take care of as part of the mission of the First Church,” Warner said. “We’re concerned about the behavior.”
Bowman has also had problems with urination and defecation on his property, and he believes the nature of the situation at Pineapple Park is being undersold to the general public. He knows that homeless people have the right to be present in the park, but he believes they’re going above and beyond what’s allowed.
“These people are literally infringing on the ability to succeed for those of us who have invested time and effort into a business,” Bowman said.
Warner met with City Manager Tom Barwin Feb. 27 to discuss the severity of the problem. Barwin said he was intent on addressing the issue, but Warner wondered how much the city could do to manage the presence of the homeless.
On Tuesday afternoon, two police cars were parked at Pineapple Park, with at least one patrol officer stationed in the area. There were no homeless people present. Barwin said that, when gatherings of transients persist in a public space for an extended period of time, it seems that some individuals eventually begin to behave in a manner that violates the city’s laws.
“When that begins to happen, we now respond in two ways,” Barwin said. “We attempt to proactively enforce our codes and laws, and in addition, the police department is in the process of implementing its Homeless Outreach Team effort.”
Barwin said the Sarasota Police Department hoped its Homeless Outreach Team would be an effective way to manage homelessness issues even when officers don’t have cause to arrest individuals.
“It’s an option other than just arresting them,” SPD Lt. Kevin Stiff said. “It’s an option to get people to services and programs and away from the street without arresting them.”
The growing voice of Pineapple Avenue businesses and residents is causing various groups to take notice. In addition to the more robust police presence, the city’s Downtown Improvement District has discussed investing in a security camera to discourage illicit activity at the park.
Despite the recent dissipation of the homeless presence, Bowman is still concerned about the effects the negative incidents will have on his business. He believes that the situation in the area needs even more attention, so the problems can be overcome for good.
“If people really knew what was going on, they wouldn’t put up with it,” Bowman said. “Everybody here really has a sense that they’ve taken over the park.”
Contact David Conway at [email protected]