Unhoused in the Village: merchants ask police, city for solutions

Real estate broker Paul Steffen asks a question during a meeting sponsored by the Village Marketing Group to address homelessness in the Village. Courier photo/Steven Felschundneff

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com

About two dozen local merchants and other residents came to the Claremont City Council chambers July 27 to learn more about homelessness in the Village.

The meeting, which was sponsored by the Claremont Village Marketing Group, provided business owners an opportunity to ask city leaders about policies and procedures regarding the unhoused and safety in the Village, according to a news release from CVMG, a local business advocacy nonprofit.

Claremont police lieutenant David DeMetz and corporal Garrett Earl as well as Michelle Castillo, a management analyst from the city’s Human Services department, answered questions submitted online prior to the meeting and also responded to concerns expressed by people in attendance.

Village Marketing Group Communication Director Kathryn Dunn handled emcee duties during the event.

Questions were submitted through CVMG’s mobile app “Our Claremont Village.” Back in March, the organization used that same app to poll business owners about their chief concerns about operating in the Village.

Claremont Police Department lieutenant David DeMetz answers a question during a meeting sponsored by the Village Marketing Group to discuss homelessness in the Village. Courier photo/Steven Felschundneff

Respondents had four topics to chose from: city ordinances, rising rents/landlord concerns, homelessness/safety, and landscaping/cleanliness.

“We learned that 62% of respondents identified homelessness and safety as their top priority,” read a post on the CVMG website. “Several private comments were sent through app, which emphasized they would like to see Claremont’s local elected officials take a more active role in working with business owners to help solve the crisis.”

That sentiment was consistent with meeting attendees’ comments, including concerns about unhoused people who appear to be mentally unstable, panhandling, employee safety going to and from work, people sleeping in common areas, and unsafe or dirty public restrooms. These issues are causing fewer people to shop in Claremont, according to CVMG’s poll.

The crisis obviously reaches far beyond the borders of Claremont. It has been identified by regional, state, and national leaders as a top quality of life policy priority. Solutions will clearly require action beyond city hall.

“Those are bigger issues that are going to require regional solutions,” Dunn said during the meeting. “We’re looking for quick fixes, short time solutions for business owners who are dealing everyday and interacting with people in crisis. And what do they do to balance the safety of their employees, their businesses, keeping the Village safe for their customers while we deal with this longer solution?”

In response to a question about what can be done when someone returns to a business a short time after being arrested at that same location, DeMetz said it depended on the offense but if that person was arrested for trespassing, even multiple times, the police are no longer allowed to keep that individual in jail.

“We used to be able to, but that is not something we can do in our current situation with the district attorney’s office,” he said, referring to Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón’s policy of not prosecuting crimes commonly associated with the unhoused such as vagrancy, trespassing, or loitering.

DeMetz said business owners should continue to call police, who take a “zero tolerance” approach, but in all likelihood the offender will be released with a ticket.

If an unhoused person appears to be in crisis, police can dispatch the Psychiatric Assessment Care Team, which includes a licensed clinician who can recommend services and provide resources. But it is still up to the person in crisis to accept this offer of help. Additional services are available for unhoused seniors through the Joslyn Senior Center at (909) 399-5488.

That may change soon with the implementation of the Community Assistance, Recovery, and Empowerment courts in Los Angeles County. The new courts are contentious, and have been opposed by disability rights groups, primarily because under their jurisdiction an unhoused person suffering from mental health or substance use disorders can be compelled to enter a treatment program.

The question of unhoused people loitering in front of businesses and discouraging people from entering was on the minds of several people in attendance.

DeMetz responded that Claremont doesn’t have an outdoor sleeping ordinance. In addition, the city’s camping ordinance was declared null and void by the federal courts in 2018 when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found it was a violation of the Constitution to criminalize camping in a public space if the jurisdiction couldn’t provide adequate alternate shelter.

“So, basically we cannot enforce that as it stands. Now, if they are on private property it’s a totally different story,” DeMetz said.

Earl, the police corporal, told residents to call police if somebody is setting up a camp near their business and that officers will respond to encourage that person to move along, enforce the laws they can, and offer services.

“But sometimes we get stuck in a position where there’s no enforcement action, they are not willing to accept any of the recourses we have and at that point we have to say ‘Okay, thank you have a nice day,’ and our involvement ends,” Earl said. “And unfortunately they stay in that area.”

Donna Daniel, who along with her husband Rob owns The Grove Clothing and The Grove Home on Indian Hill Boulevard, suggested removing or privatizing the public benches in the Village. She surmised that if she owned the bench in front of her store then she could ask an unhoused man she said spends hours there every day to move along. Or if the benches were removed there would be fewer places for the unhoused to congregate.

“Changing the DA respectfully is not going to change the issues you deal with,” Daniel said to the other business owners in the room. “I agree the DA needs to be tougher but it’s not going to change our day-to-day life and the guy who has been sitting out in front of my store for 10 years.”


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