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West Palm Beach residents want solutions to homelessness downtown

Neighbors, business owners, other community members share concerns at meeting
Posted at 11:59 PM, Sep 20, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-21 08:45:33-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The Downtown Neighborhood Association in West Palm Beach held a meeting Wednesday to address homelessness downtown.

The event at Palm Beach Drama Works highlighted concerns of neighbors, business owners and other community members.

"How can we stop them from approaching us? We don't want them on the street to approach us," one resident said. 

"Last week, I had a homeless gentleman come in not once, not twice, but three times a day every day for four days in a row," said another business owner, who also said she has lost staff because they are worried for their safety.

West Palm Beach police said since June they've gotten 2,000-plus calls regarding homeless people.

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Two ordinances have been repealed: One that made it unlawful to solicit money and other things of value in certain public areas was repealed due to free speech.

Another that made it unlawful to panhandle or solicit in public areas of the city's downtown and Northwood areas also was repealed.
A sleeping or lodging ordinance is still in effect, which makes it unlawful for any person to sleep, camp, lodge or lie with the intent to sleep, camp or lodge on:

• Any right-of-way sidewalk, street, roadway, or parking lot

• In any park or pavilion

• Under any bridge or causeway

• In any building lobby, entranceway, plaza or common area.

West Palm Beach police said they can't take action unless they offer the offender alternative shelter. If that person refuses, then police can arrest them.
Police said residents do not have to be offered services to be asked to leave a park after hours if it is closed.

Palm Beach County Mayor Gregg Weiss said an issue has been that there isn't enough shelter available for police to properly remove a person violating the ordinance.

Palm Beach County Mayor Gregg Weiss said "the real challenge is the loss of Jerome Golden Center." Sept. 20, 2023
Palm Beach County Mayor Gregg Weiss said "the real challenge is the loss of Jerome Golden Center."

"The real challenge, I think, is the loss of Jerome Golden Center, which was a place for us to provide both in-patient and residential care for people dealing with chronic mental illness," Weiss said.

They're now proposing a new mental health facility.

More than 500 homeless people were found in District 7, an area that includes parts of downtown West Palm Beach. WPTV is waiting to get more specific data from the city of West Palm Beach.

"We can all agree that living on the streets is not a dignified way to live," Sitima Fowler, the president of the DNA, said. "We've got to get them the shelter. We've got to get them the medical needs that they need and it starts there."

In July and August, the city successfully housed or sheltered 41 chronically homeless people.

Sixteen were reconnected with a loved one or family member through the city's Homeward Bound Program.

Forty homeless individuals received referrals to access mental health and substance use services.

However, their services were refused 51 times.

"We have to continue doing case management on them, basically, forever," Allie Severino, the homeless services coordinator for West Palm Beach, said. "Now, we're not required to do that, but we do because we want to see them stay housed and stable and thriving."

Homeless woman stands in downtown West Palm Beach
A homeless woman stands near some outdoor tables in downtown West Palm Beach.

Weiss said this year the budget for the county on preventing homelessness is $35 million, with $26 million directly from the county and the rest from state and federal partners.

Another $10 million comes from Housing and Urban Development. That goes directly to the nonprofits that help with homelessness.

Police plan to have more officers in the downtown area, as well as install additional security cameras to spot problem zones and provide outreach.

The Downtown Development Authority also is planning to form a security task force composed of representative members from the community, including residential, business and property owners. The task force will provide feedback and advice to law enforcement, city administration, the DDA and the community.

A sample of downtown businesses and stakeholders will be asked to provide regular updates on business activity, incidents of crime and nuisance behavior, perception and customer experience.

Meanwhile, advocates like Canta Chestnut, the president of the "We Care About People" nonprofit, said the number of homeless people they feed has doubled.

Canta Chestnut, the president of the "We Care About People" nonprofit, said they are preparing 80 food plates per day, which has doubled. Sept. 20, 2023
Canta Chestnut, the president of the "We Care About People" nonprofit, said they are preparing 80 food plates per day, which has doubled. Sept. 20, 2023

She agrees that the homeless shouldn't be asking people for money on the street or while people are dining.

"I hope to see exactly what it is that's planned for the homeless and I hope it's something that will benefit them and not hurt them because they're hurting enough," Chestnut said.

Police are asking business owners who have concerns about a homeless individual causing issues to call 911 immediately.

Anyone needing a free security escort can call Brosnan Security at The Square at 561-818-3667 or PSC Security at 561-446-2036.