With confusion and frustration mounting among Valley business owners over what they say is growing and aggressive panhandling near their operations, there’s hope that a new city program installing no-loitering signs will help.
Craig McCalla, 47, a co-owner of McCalla Co., a janitorial supply company on Van Nuys Boulevard, is among those who are feeling that hope, as signs go up in underpasses and pedestrian tunnels in the Valley.
“If the homeless have all their stuff outside our store, people are wary of walking in,” McCalla said. “It affects our sales. No-loitering signs should definitely help.”
McCalla is one of many business owners in the area who say the city needs an effective approach in handling homelessness.
Nearly 58,000 homeless people live in Los Angeles County on any given night, a 23 percent increase from last year, according to the recent count from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Since last year, in the city of Los Angeles, the homeless population has increased 20 percent to 34,189.
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Panhandling has become such a problem that 30 protesters took to the streets in Woodland Hills earlier this month, voicing their concerns about homelessness.
Also in July, a group of activists accompanied shoppers to Ralphs in Chatsworth, drawing attention to aggressive panhandling in the neighborhood. Some stores beefed up their security to prevent homeless people from stealing toiletries and food.
Now, the city says it has a solution.
In July, Councilman Bob Blumenfield’s office began installing no-loitering signs in 16 underpasses and pedestrian tunnels across communities, including Reseda, Winnetka and Woodland Hills.
The signs won’t ban tent encampments on sidewalks, but they will allow law enforcement to move or arrest a homeless person without a notice and warning.
Under the Los Angeles Municipal Code, “No person shall stand in or upon any street, sidewalk or other public way open for pedestrian travel or otherwise occupy any portion thereof in such a manner as to annoy or molest any pedestrian thereon or so as to obstruct or unreasonably interfere with the free passage of pedestrians.”
Nancy Hoffman Vanyek, chief executive of the Greater San Fernando Valley Chamber of Commerce, said this change was long overdue.
“People are concerned, and we let it go for so long,” Hoffman Vanyek said. “I think our City Council needs to take a stronger stand. Installing the signs is a good step.”
But in a city where affordable housing is hard to come by, and where homelessness has become more visible, it’s a step not all agree with.
Samuel Miller, a homeless man from the Hollywood area, said installing no-loitering signs is cruel.
“I think it’s really inhumane,” Miller, 44, said. “It’s not how you’re going to get rid of someone. It makes you feel like an animal. … It’s not how you’re going to get rid of someone, because they will come back next day.”
For others, the installation of signs brings up a larger discussion on who panhandlers are, and what, if any, options they have for shelter.
“Not all panhandlers experience homelessness,” said the Rev. Andy Bales, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission, which helps the homeless on skid row. “Sometimes people already have a job and still panhandle on the side. I know many homeless who don’t panhandle. It would be great if signs would distinguish between two groups.
“If we want to make sure homeless people don’t loiter, we need to provide emergency shelter rather than arrest them for loitering. We need to provide enough services for people who need help.”
Jack Bulko, who has run an auto shop in Van Nuys for 38 years, knows that at least some of his customers might agree with Bales.
He refused to give the name of his store precisely because he feared alienating customers who say homeless people deserve more support.
Bulko worked for several months with homeless shelters and law enforcement, trying to remove a homeless woman. Her possessions included five shopping carts stretched near his store, which made some of his customers uncomfortable to visit his shop.
“They were scared to send their kids to the store,” he said, adding that the woman’s encampment attracted other homeless people. “The impact on my business was very negative.”
Blumenfield said dealing with panhandling is a delicate balance.
“We try to make sure that the services are provided,” he said. “We’re helping people who need help. We also want to keep our community clean and free from aggressive panhandling.”
Scott Vennum, who lost his apartment in Winnetka about a month ago, said the new effort would hardly alleviate the problem.
“I see more and more signs in this area,” said Vennum, 40, as he sat under a tree with his three dogs near Vons at Reseda and Ventura boulevards. “I don’t think people care about it. They see a new law and say, ‘Hey, go and fight stronger.’ ”
Some say installing the signs offers no real solution.
“Homeless people don’t read signs,” Bulko said. “Many of them are mentally ill. Spending a night in jail is a gift for them. They come back very quickly. It’s like putting a bandage on a major fracture.”