Recent Clematis Street closures spark conversation among business owners

Agressive homeless driving away customers?
Posted at 9:28 PM, Jan 05, 2017

 An area of West Palm Beach so familiar to many of us is quickly changing.
More businesses are shutting down and moving off Clematis Street, with the closures of Bar Louie and Off The Hookah. The announcements have ignited many conversations on social media among business owners.
They say high rent and landlords are among the problems they deal with, but another issue could be driving customers away.

"To a person, we all have a heart to what is going on with homeless people in this city, state and country -- unfortunately, we still have businesses to run. And it becomes very difficult to run those businesses when people Don't want to come down to Clematis Street because they're constantly being harassed," said Michael Platt, owner of Ultima Fitness in downtown.

Business owners believe the city and police are not doing enough to solve the problem.

"Rents are high. It's difficult enough to do well down here," he said. "If people are coming into your restaurant and taking food off the plates of the family, they're not coming back. It's one and done here."

Russ Griffin of finer optics in downtown is one of many fed up business owners.

"You do seem to have a little bit more of them in the wintertime. I think generally in South Florida that something you come across," he said.

He's caught countless acts by vagrants on security cameras posted outside his store.

"What he's being forced to go through right now is not fair to him, and it's certainly not fair to these people," he said, pointing to a video of a homeless man yelling at a couple eating lunch outside of a restaurant nearby. "They're probably not going to come back to Clematis Street."

Griffin has captured different vagrants on surveillance changing clothes in public, drinking alcohol and even grabbing their genitalia -- all outside his business doors.

"It's also not conducive for business and business owners to try and bring something positive to the street and have people drinking beer, taking food off tables harassing people constantly," he said.

Platt said he's called the police numerous times.

"We've had a guy exposing himself in front of a family eating at Palm Sugar. These are the things that we're dealing with on a fairly regular basis," he said.

He says he and other business owners believe aggressive homeless could be driving customers away.

"In the last 12 months alone we've lost Bar Louie, Shout, Don Ramon's, Fishhouse, World of Beer, Cabana, Tin Fish, Hamburger Heaven, Grimaldi's," said Platt. "How can the street thrive? Something has to be done."

We spoke with West Palm Beach mayor Jeri Muoio about it. She said she knows there's a problem along Clematis Street but it's a complex issue with no easy answers. 

"It's not illegal to be homeless and there are a lot of unfortunate people who are in that predicament," she said. "But it is illegal to be aggressively panhandle -- and if you run into an aggressive panhandler, please call the police."

She said the city is continuing programs to address the issues, such as Homeward Bound.

"Last year, we sent over 100 people home back home to their families. And we we pay for them to go home. And they only go if there's a family member willing to accept them," she said. "We also work closely with the Lord's Place. We have two outreach workers that work just in West Palm Beach. They're here every day and they are out talking to the homeless people. Trying to get them into a program, trying to get them into a home as they transition."

She said the city is working on more strategies this year to address the problem.

"I recently had a meeting with the Mental Health Association asking them if they can send, with our two outreach workers, a mental health specialist. So we're in the process of trying to make that happen," she said

She said she is open to more ideas from the public on addressing the vagrancy issues.

While patience is wearing thin, business owners say they just want to find a balance.

"We need to create environments for the homeless people to go to that are not in the middle of the street that is supposed to generate the most tax revenue for all of West Palm Beach. It doesn't even make any sense," said Platt.