Astoria city councilors on Monday urged police to more aggressively enforce city rules after business owners spoke out about how the homeless have deterred customers and intimidated employees.
City Councilor Zetty Nemlowill made a motion to support police “in dealing with the bad behavior of certain individuals on the street, recognizing that homelessness is not a crime.” The motion followed numerous meetings over several months where councilors discussed what could be done to address issues raised by downtown businesses and residents about the homeless.
Police Chief Geoff Spalding had suggested at a work session in January that the police department could be more proactive about enforcing certain city rules, but would want the City Council’s support before he gave that direction to his officers.
Nemlowill’s motion was supported by Councilor Bruce Jones and Mayor Arline LaMear. The motion passed 3-2. Councilors Cindy Price and Tom Brownson voted against it, saying they would have preferred more time to think through the language and the implications. Price worried about singling out specific populations and individuals.
The rules councilors want police to aggressively enforce include minor infractions like harassment and dogs off leash, but also cover public urination and defecation — issues noted with increasing frequency around downtown businesses, most recently in the 13th Street alley near the shuttered J.C. Penney store.
Spalding asked the council to include the clarifying statement that “homelessness is not a crime,” a phrase he has emphasized at other meetings. He assured Price that police officers are already enforcing city laws. The council, in its motion, was not asking the department to do anything new or different, he said, adding that the laws apply to everyone.
“(The councilors’ motion of support) causes us to look at our priorities,” Spalding said after the meeting. “Not having infinite resources, we have to look at where are we going to spend our time. We’ve known for a while that there’s been a big frustration in the community, you can see the frustration bubbling up. Even the councilors are frustrated because it’s a problem for our community that no one has any really great answers for.”
Debbie Boothe Schmidt, owner of Phog Bounders Antique Mall, whose comments sparked the discussion, had hoped for a parking exemption so her employees — some of whom are older — could park near the business. Instead, they park on Astor Street near a small park at the base of Eighth Street, where there is no parking time limit. Homeless people often gather at this spot, she said. While they haven’t done much more than catcall, it is intimidating to her employees and customers, she said. She believes there have also been issues of drunkenness and drug use.
“We are not people without compassion,” said Tom Schmidt, Debbie Schmidt’s husband and also an owner of Phog Bounders. “We are not people who don’t care about other people, but these people don’t care about us.”
Spalding and LaMear head the city’s homelessness task force, meeting with a wide spectrum of people from social service, advocacy, law enforcement, education and health backgrounds to come up with ways to address issues. LaMear hopes creative solutions will come out of their discussions, but said it could be a long time before they have anything concrete.
“We’ve got people breaking the laws, making our citizens feel unsafe and jeopardizing the quality of life and we’re letting them do it,” Nemlowill said, arguing that the motion was something that could be accomplished now. “So our chief of police says that he would like direction from council on how to deal with this and whether or not we would like the police department to take a more aggressive approach to this kind of bad behavior.”
“It seems to me like we’ve got two problems,” she added. “There’s the issue of homelessness and then we’ve got bad behavior, and I don’t care who’s causing the bad behavior, whether they’ve got a house or they don’t have a house, they still shouldn’t be allowed to be violating laws that we have in place, like urination and defecation on the streets and violation of leash laws and drinking alcohol, smoking in city parks. That stuff just happens and we just let it happen.”
Nemlowill pointed out that in a goal-setting session held Friday, Spalding and the council talked about bad behavior people have attributed to homeless people and how some of these issues could be addressed by police taking a more proactive approach in enforcing city rules. The understaffed police department would likely require more officers to do this effectively, Spalding cautioned.
The police chief hopes to begin collecting more data around homelessness to determine what are problems and what are just perceptions.