Leaders from across Long Beach City Hall are scrambling to address the homelessness crisis that’s unfolded Downtown over the last two years, as business owners threaten to leave the area.
More police officers, increasing Health Department outreach, expanding homeless shelter capacity and even declaring a state of emergency for the Downtown area are all plans that city officials have proposed over the last week, but it’s unclear how much of an impact any or all of those options would have.
The recent mobilization has come in the wake of outcry from business leaders, including an email from Beachwood Brewing co-owner Gabriel Gordon that outlined a list of issues related to homelessness that has driven down business significantly.
The business community, for its part, has expressed a cautious optimism in response to the city’s recently escalated efforts to come up with a more comprehensive solution. But as crime in the area continues to impact their bottom line, they can only wait so long for a turnaround.
“We cannot look away from this situation,” Modica’s Deli owner Orsa Modica said, noting that issues surrounding homelessness are sensitive and often make people uncomfortable. “We are in crisis mode.”
Councilmember Mary Zendejas, who represents the city’s 1st District, which includes the Downtown area, agrees. She told the Business Journal she is drafting a City Council item to recognize homelessness as a public health crisis and declare a state of emergency. She said she is in the early stages so no details are available, but that it will be presented for consideration in December or January.
Meanwhile, the brainstorming continues.
Last week, several city and business leaders—including Zendejas, deputy city managers Teresa Chandler and Linda Tatum, Health and Human Services Director Kelly Colopy, Police Chief Wally Hebeish, Public Works Director Eric Lopez, Long Beach Area Chamber President and CEO Jeremy Harris and Downtown Long Beach Alliance CEO Austin Metoyer—met to discuss the issue.
While the meeting was notable for the number of city and department leaders that were present, it resulted in few specifics on how to move forward.
Lopez, with Public Works, committed to continue working with other departments and organizations, including the DLBA and Convention Center, to help improve safety in Downtown and across the city, according to Public Works spokesperson Joy Contreras.
Contreras said the department has not identified any specific solutions to move forward with yet, but actions such as improved lighting and landscaping would fall under their purview.
“I think there are different ideas we have yet to explore,” Contreras said. “But we’ll be working … to make sure our businesses, residents and visitors do feel safe.”
Long Beach Health and Human Services, which includes Homeless Services, is focused on increasing its outreach, while also brainstorming longer-term solutions, according to spokesperson Jennifer Rice Epstein.
The department declined to comment further on what those solutions could be.
The Police Department, for its part, hosted a virtual forum on Monday, in which Hebeish focused largely on increased staffing as one way to address crime in the area. He said the city’s 2023 police budget was the “most ambitious” ever, which will see four additional bike cops (for a total of eight) patrolling Downtown as well as two dedicated quality of life officers.
The department is in the process of hiring those officers now, Hebeish said.
But even with more officers in the Downtown, Hebeish said the department has to determine the best use of its resources.
He said that focusing on public indecency, drug use and violence, for example, are better uses of officers’ time than arresting someone for sleeping in a park after hours.
But another issue police are facing, he added, is a lack of shelter beds.
“There are many more people looking for shelter beds than there are beds available, so we’re regularly at capacity,” Paul Duncan, Homeless Services Bureau Manager, said during the forum. “It’s been quite challenging over the past six months.”
Duncan said his team is continually looking at ways to increase shelter capacity, which will give police more options when they come across those open to assistance. Duncan noted the city recently purchased a nuisance motel in North Long Beach that will add 78 temporary beds, expected in roughly a year.
Hebeish said the various city departments need to continue working together to address these issues, adding that operating in silos is not an option.
“There have been some successes and there’ve been some failures,” Hebeish said. “As a team, there are things we can improve upon.”
For now, it appears Zendejas’ idea to declare a state of emergency may be the most novel approach that’s come of the recent discussions. But it’s unclear how impactful such a declaration would be.
City Manager Tom Modica (no relation to Modica’s Deli owner Orsa Modica) on Tuesday said some declarations are “more of a general acknowledgment of urgency of priorities,” as was the case in June 2020 when the City Council approved a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis in the wake of the George Floyd murder.
Some declarations, however, trigger sections of the city’s Municipal Code that grants the city manager additional authority such as “increased purchasing limits and contracting ability of the City Manager on behalf of the council in order to provide quicker response,” the city manager said. This was the case with the city’s mobilization around COVID-19 and monkeypox.
The ability to increase appropriations, meanwhile, would remain with the council, he added. But often additional dollars are set aside to support emergency response if federal or state dollars are not made available, he added.
For now, business owners said they’re essentially left in a waiting game.
“City government needs to be more honest with the situation,” John Sangmeister, owner of Gladstone’s and regular city hall critic, said following last week’s meeting. “They need to be transparent, and they need to be accountable.”
Other businesses, including District Wine and Modica’s Deli, have said they may be forced to relocate if the issues are not addressed soon.
Orsa Modica, who has owned and operated the deli on the corner of Ocean Boulevard and Linden Avenue for 26 years, said she is at a breaking point and that, during last week’s meeting, city leaders definitely felt the owners’ frustration.
Being located in Downtown for nearly three decades, Orsa Modica said she has seen major changes in the area. For many years, the changes were positive as the area became safer and cleaner. The onset of the pandemic, however, marked a turning point.
“We’re going backward,” she said, noting that she surveils and cleans her corner. “I’m doing everything I can to keep this corner alive and make people safe.”
Both Orsa Modica and Angela Mesna, owner of District Wine, said they and their female staff members will not leave their respective businesses at night without an escort due to safety concerns. With a lack of foot traffic, Modica said business is down around 25%.
Orsa Modica pointed out that the city was a leader amid the pandemic, quickly turning the Convention Center into a mass testing and vaccination site. She noted how quickly the city was able to prepare to house migrant children.
“Why can’t we do this?” she asked. “Why can’t we lead?”
“I’m a survivor, and I’m going to fight hard for what I believe in,” she continued. “I’m going to be my damnedest to bring this pressure to the city for change.”