Clematis Street Homeless

OK, let's face the facts. Clematis Street has a homeless problem. There are a lot of homeless people roaming around Clematis Street. 99% of them do not cause any problems for anyone else on the street, but unfortunately, the sight of the homeless people may discourage some people from visiting the businesses on the street (or feeling comfortable there).

Last year, several business owners on the 100 block, including the owner of Pistache Restaurant (which just celebrated its one year anniversary), complained to the city that homeless people in the fountain area were hurting their business. Specifically, they were most concerned about the charitable groups that have organized feedings there, which seems to draw even more homeless people to this location, on Wednesday night and Saturday. The city really wants all these businesses to succeed, so they tried to do something about it. They passed an ordinance banning the homeless feedings in that specific location. After the ordinance was passed, police came to view the homeless feedings. But the police did not enforce the ordinance. In the end, the wording of the ordinance was questioned and the city repealed the ordinance. The homeless feedings continue to this day on Wednesday nights, with large groups of homeless people there, right across from the outdoor seating of Pistache Restaurant. This is always a difficult issue, since this is a free country, so there are limits on what can be done about it.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting former mayor Joel Daves, who was mayor of the City of West Palm Beach from 1999 - 2003, when City Place was developed. Having met him I decided to do a google search of his name and explore some of the things that happened in West Palm Beach during his term. I was amazed to find an old Palm Beach Post article from 2002 (7 years ago) entitled "In West Palm Beach, FL: Don't Feed the Homeless; Mayor, Homeless Advocates at Odds."

It turns out that, in 2002, a group of college students organized at Palm Beach Atlantic was serving hot dogs to homeless people by the fountain every Tuesday night. The owner of Pizza Girls and other businesses complained to the city that this was attracting more homeless people to the area and discouraging business at their restaurants. Mayor Joel Daves, sympathetic to the businesses, tried to stop the homeless feedings because the group did not have a permit for the activity, ordering then police chief Ric Bradshaw to "Stop this". Apparently, the following Tuesday, the police showed up to watch the homeless feeding, and talked to the organizers, but did not do anything to stop it. Some discussions ensued regarding relocation of the activity, but nothing came of the discussions and the feedings continued. Also that year, the West Palm Beach City Commission declared an emergency due to the homeless situation downtown.

Talk about history repeating itself! I was shocked by this old story! Everything in it was just about identical to the events of 2008, except all the names were changed. Then, it was the owner of Pizza Girls rather than Pistache complaining. Then, it was Mayor Joel Daves rather than Mayor Lois Frankel fielding the complaint and responding to it. Then it was a Palm Beach Atlantic student group serving hotdogs on Tuesday nights instead of the current group serving meals on Wednesday nights. Then it was Ric Bradshaw as Chief of Police of West Palm (now Palm Beach County Sheriff) being asked to enforce a city rule to stop the feedings, instead of the current police chief Delsa Bush. And then, as now, the police were not able to actually do anything about it for various reasons, and despite discussions of alternative sites, the homeless feedings continued!

I guess the only moral of the story is that this problem has been around for a long time. Since an emergency was declared back then, it appears that the problem must have been even worse back then, so at least things have improved. Yes, the feedings might do something to attract a few more homeless people to the specific site, but they certainly do not cause the problem. There is something about Centennial Square (the fountain area in the 100 block of Clematis Street) and Clematis Street in general, that attracts homeless people. In many respects, the same things that attract non-homeless people to the area, such as its terrific walkability, its pleasant location next to the intracoastal waterway, and its nice-looking streetscape, also attract homeless people as well.

I have also noticed in the few years that I have walked Clematis Street reporting for WALKINGCLEMATIS.COM, the specific homeless people tend to change from year-to-year. The ones that were there regularly two years ago, are now long gone. I'm not sure where they went, but they are all gone. A new group of different people seems to crop up each year. There have been a lot of new ones recently that have become regulars there over the past month or so, and none of them were ever in the area before. I can't help but think that another reason there are so many homeless people on this particular street is another aspect that should be a great thing but is also a problem -- the proximity to a major train station. Homeless people generally don't ride in in cars and boats, they likely come by train. And word must get around far-and-wide that you can get off at the West Palm Beach stop and you'll be within blocks of everything you need as a homeless traveler.

The bottom line is that I don't know what can be done about this problem. The things that are attracting more homeless people to Clematis Street are the same things that make it a great street and attract non-homeless people to the area. One thing that the city might want to try, if this is feasible, is NOT having a public restroom in Centennial Square, despite the inconvenience this might cause for some. I understand that the public beach section on the island of Palm Beach also does not have a restroom, so I don't think this is a requirement for public areas. My guess is that the Town of Palm Beach has withheld a restroom on purpose in order to discourage people hanging out there for long periods of time. Of course, this adds some significant inconvenience as well, but given the magnitude of the homeless problem on Clematis, it might be something for the city to consider.

Of course it would be better to go to the root of the problem and solve the problem of homelessness all together, but I'm afraid that is not likely to happen.

There are never any homeless people in City Place, even though it would certainly be a nice place for them to hang out. City Place security is ruthless about keeping them out. If a person who even looks slightly homeless enters the first block of City Place, alarms go off (somehow) and a security guard is there immediately asking them what they are doing there. Although they are not able to kick someone out of City Place just because they are homeless, the security guards simply make sure that it is not a pleasant place for them to hang out. If the same thing were done on Clematis Street, the problem could be tackled there too. However, I believe there could be differences in what the security guards are able to do given the somewhat different nature of the two locations (semi-private vs. entirely public street), although I'm not sure about that.

This is not intended to be a negative commentary on homeless people. Any one of us could find ourselves in that category at some time in our lives. Maybe some of the people reading this are currently homeless. There are many reasons that someone might become homeless, through no fault of their own. Nevertheless, the reality is that non-homeless people are often scared away by homeless people, so the presence of homeless people does not help businesses in the area, especially restaurants. There are homeless people in every city, but in many cities the problem is successfully hidden because the homeless people are mostly under bridges and other places which non-homeless people do not frequent. For better or worse, this does not seem to be the case in downtown West Palm Beach. It's one big happy family where homeless and non-homeless people co-exist on the very same blocks.

I believe that this is one of the major issues that is holding Clematis Street back. Despite the beautiful new City Center, and the upcoming waterfront enhancement, people will still not want to flock to Clematis Street in large numbers if there continues to be a large visible homeless population right at its main entrance in Centennial Square. In order to get full benefit from all the money that is being spent on the waterfront project, it might be prudent to cut back a few things from that project and divert the money saved into creating another location just a few blocks away in the city where homeless people will be comfortable living. There are plenty of vacant blocks in the downtown that could be used for this, plenty of blocks which do not have 10 restaurants where the negative impact on business would not be as significant. I'm sure this is easier said than done, especially since no one will want this in their backyard. Nevertheless, if this problem could be successfully addressed it would do wonders in allowing Clematis Street to meet its full potential. And if the problem is completely ignored, I am fearful that a lot of the money going into the waterfront project may end up being a wasted investment. Despite how beautiful it is along the waterfront, non-homeless people will not feel comfortable walking there if it is filled with homeless people.

If you have any ideas about what to do about this problem, please click on the "Comments" tab on the left side, and leave your comments. Let us know if you would like your comments shown on this website or not.

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