As an Astoria police program meant to help businesses monitor property enters its third year, it represents a small solution in the city’s otherwise fluid response to homelessness.
Property Watch, which allows officers to supervise commercial and apartment properties after hours on the owners’ behalf, was rebooted in 2017 to curb aggressive panhandling downtown. It attracted 36 participants in its first year. Last year, 68 businesses signed on.
Most of the businesses are located near the downtown core, where complaints have arisen about human waste, leftover garbage, camping and disorderly conduct. Since state law does not allow police to prevent people from using public spaces, owners can sign annual contracts authorizing officers to remove people without making new trespass complaints.
“The unwanted activity is most often happening after business hours,” Astoria Police Sgt. Andrew Randall, the program’s supervisor, said in a text message. “While the program isn’t a fix-all solution, it has given Astoria police officers a tool to assist businesses and property owners in trying to reduce unwanted activity on their property.”
Business owners are encouraged to alert police of recurring issues. They’re also provided with window signs warning against behavior such as loud noise, fighting, littering and loitering. Officers, in return, keep eyes on those locations and deal with any activities that owners would not approve.
The owners of Phog Bounders Antique Mall joined the program last year when suitcases and bags of junk kept appearing outside the store’s basement in the morning. Since then, the junk has disappeared, said Debbie Schmidt, a co-owner of the store.
“Now if the cops drive by and see someone in the doorway, which they do sometimes, they can shoo them away,” Schmidt said. “They can investigate it without getting us out of bed.”
Certain problems — like vandalism, human waste and intimidation — persist, but others — like aggressive panhandling — have subsided for the time being, said Sarah Lu Heath, executive director of the Astoria Downtown Historic District Association.
“I think it’s doing what it’s supposed to,” Heath said. “It’s a doozy of a situation, but everyone is doing what we can.”
About a year ago, Randall noticed that while the program had helped temporarily quash some issues, it might have led to more people camping in the woods. A few months later, the City Council banned camping in woods after much debate.
Business owners were concerned that some of the problem behaviors would resurface downtown. So far, though, that doesn’t appear to have happened, Heath said.
The trend highlighted the unpredictability of where homeless people may congregate and what behaviors could follow. Right now, vacant storefronts are the hot spots.
“I don’t think that any of the issues have been eliminated because, sometimes, the issues relocate to another spot. This usually manifests itself at a location that is vacant or doesn’t have a business currently using the property,” Randall said. “If there is no signage, such as the Property Watch signs, then those that want to hang out somewhere often see those locations as their best option.”
In addition to the shifting locations, new faces can also appear. Schmidt differentiated between local homeless people and transients who pass through town.
A different group has been hanging out at the small grassy area by Schmidt’s store in recent weeks. One night, after the store was closed, three different people knocked on the front door and asked an employee inside to let them in. For safety reasons, Schmidt advised againstit.
“It just seems like it starts to close in after a while, and I don’t have any answers for them, honestly,” Schmidt said.
The downtown association is sending a survey out to businesses this week in an attempt to measure the scope and severity of nagging concerns. Results from the survey may find their way into comments at public meetings.
“We know it’s a problem with many different aspects,” Heath said. “More to come at this point.”