Dilemma at the door

Businesses have a problem amid all the promise.

Published February 18, 2007

With downtown in the midst of a renaissance, businesses are being hampered by an increasing population of homeless people.

"We've got people who live on our corner," said Mark Stroud with Osprey Management, which leases space in the BB&T building at Fourth Street and Central. "But it's not just my corner. It's every corner. And it seems to be a lot worse this year."

Stroud says many businesses would like to have offices downtown, but they and their employees are uncomfortable if being downtown means being harassed by homeless people on the street. He said most of the homeless are harmless, but none of his tenants likes to encounter them, and some feel threatened.

"It's an issue for me keeping tenants," he said. "They could just as well be someplace else."

The two main issues people ask about are parking and the homeless, and not always in that order, Stroud said.

The issues came together recently when one tenant refused nearby parking spaces in the empty Wachovia building after employees using those spaces kept running into the homeless in the garage.

Stroud also said his staff has to clean up "restroom materials" the homeless leave around his building.

"This is not something we should have to deal with," Stroud said.

Osprey properties in Florida and other states don't have these problems, Stroud said, because those communities are not as forgiving.

"The more we provide, the more the homeless are going to be attracted," he said. "We're too nice."

Just down the street, Ross Preville takes a more generous approach to downtown's homeless. He lives downtown, his teenage children encounter the homeless, and he runs into homeless people on his walk to work in the Bank of America building at Central and Second Street. He said the solution is not as easy as saying no.

"Some business owners say get them off the streets, but it's not that simple," said Preville, a member of the Homeless Leadership Network and a wealth management specialist for Raymond James. "We have to have someplace to take people to transition to a more normal life."

Some recent developments may have exacerbated the problem. A group of older, dilapidated homes were razed earlier this year to make room for CitySide Terrace Homes on Eighth Street N. Tent city showed up shortly thereafter. Many more older homes near downtown are ripe for redevelopment.

"There's always going to be somebody close to the edge," Preville said of those who live in deteriorating buildings. "If there's no place for these people to live, what are their options?"

Preville faces the problem at work, too. Homeless people often linger around the building and can be seen through floor-to-ceiling windows. Once a homeless person urinated on a window while a client was in the office.

Scott Long also has client-homeless issues. Sidewalk diners at his Central Avenue Oyster Bar are hassled by panhandlers, and Long said he has to shoo them away a dozen times a day. Sometimes the homeless are belligerent, he said.

"It gets really old," Long said. "It's costing me money. It's costing all of us money."

Long said he's not heartless. He hired a homeless man who asked for work, and now that man can afford a place to live. But Long can't solve the problem alone. Meanwhile, the city's renewing image suffers.

"We're on the cusp of doing something great down here," Long said. "We don't need these problems."

Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or pswider@sptimes.com or by participating in itsyourtimes.com.