The Westside has long been plagued with issues related to homelessness and deteriorating infrastructure, according to area business owners. Homeless issues are creating health and safety concerns among business owners, while other chronic problems include infrastructure issues related to degrading streets, storm drainage and a lack of fiber optics.
Daryl Phillips, owner and president of Phillips Steel Co. at 1368 W. Anaheim St., said these issues have persisted for years. But although there has long been a sense that the Westside has been neglected by city officials, Phillips said there has been a “turnaround” in recent months.
The Westside Project Area Committee (Westside PAC), consisting of hundreds of Westside business owners, convenes monthly at the Long Beach Police Department’s (LBPD) West Division Office to address a variety of issues plaguing the area. Recently, a subcommittee focused on the homeless problem has been formed and meets on a bi-weekly basis.
In August, Westside PAC leaders, including Phillips and Westside PAC President Paul Collins, escorted city officials with the public works and health departments around the Westside industrial area to survey the scene firsthand. This tour helped city officials open their eyes to the problem, Phillips said, adding that “we have [received] a tremendous, tremendous response” since then.
Among the city officials that surveyed the Westside was Diko Melkonian, deputy manager of public works. Melkonian said he witnessed illegally dumped items, as well as many parked recreational vehicles (RVs) and homeless encampments. The Long Beach Clean Team, a public works program focused on removing litter and debris throughout the city, has assisted in addressing some of the Westside blight, Melkonian said. The Long Beach Public Works Department’s stormwater/environmental compliance division, which works to address citywide stormwater, dumping and flooding issues, also sends out information publicly and in-person to prevent the dumping of items.
“We make sure they understand what is and isn’t appropriate,” Melkonian said. “We need to make sure people are not dumping any waste into the storm drains – which would be illegal – and just to kind of provide some general education about rights and wrongs and dos and don’ts.”
Phillips’ biggest concern is security. Some Westside PAC members who own restaurants mentioned that homeless individuals often enter their establishments screaming and shouting, Phillips said. “It’s a mess,” he added.
During a four-week period in September, the LBPD moved roughly 200 illegally parked motor homes and their homeless occupants in the industrial area, Collins told the Business Journal. Phillips said the area now has roughly 14 such vehicles. However, Collins expressed concern that the solution is only temporary, since most of these vehicles will simply park elsewhere. “I think it’s a very difficult situation,” he said. “I don’t think there is any magic bullet to fix it.”
In spite of Collins’ and Phillips’ praise of the LBPD’s efforts, some business owners aren’t seeing much of a change. Joe Pearson, president of Hi Standard Manufacturing & Engineering at 1510 W. Cowles St., called the influx of RVs “absolutely ridiculous.” Vandalism is also a major problem with Westside businesses, he said. “I mean, my building just got tagged [recently],” he noted.
Pearson proposed setting aside a specific area for homeless campers and vehicles, like a parking lot, where there would be basic utilities, such as a shower and bathroom. “We could put these campers on [that] property. Maybe you’d have to enroll in a program,” he said. Pearson said he has discussed this strategy with some Westside business owners. Collins mentioned a similar approach.
Tamery McCrabb, president of Cowelco Steel Contractors at 1634 W. 14th St., said the RV presence has gradually become worse. Her business’s proximity to an alley also poses a safety threat, she said. “We are constantly getting vagrants, like people doing drugs [and] using needles,” McCrabb said. “I mean, it’s not safe for homeless people to be out there. And it’s not safe for my employees either when they’re stepping over needles and sewage. We have a lot of human waste that’s been dumped in the corner here.”
Janie Cozine has been a LBPD patrol resources officer with the West Division since May. Collins and McCrabb both praised Cozine for her work in referring homeless individuals to the Long Beach Multi-Service Center, a public health department service located 1301 W. 12th St. that offers resources to homeless individuals. “My role as a resource officer is to help provide resources for subjects that are experiencing homelessness and direct them to some help,” she said.
The Multi-Service Center collaborates with the LBPD to provide these services, according to Shannon Parker, the City of Long Beach homeless services officer. “The police are very well trained to offer resources,” she said.
Parker said the police have been proactive in approaching RVs that are unlicensed and illegally parked, but the challenge in doing that begins with properly identifying these vehicles as homeless dwellings. “It’s a subjective choice,” she said. “We have to distinguish all the time between what it is illegal activity and what is being homeless. In situations where the RV is not operable or the licensing has expired and things like that, we will work with the police department, because that is their area of expertise.”
Parker added that she has met with Westside PAC members periodically to update them on the service’s efforts to address the homeless problem. Phillips praised Parker and the work at the Multi-Service Center.
As a security measure, Cozine said Westside businesses should always report suspicious activity to the police. Precautionary tactics may include installing security cameras or alarms and securing windows and doors. Investing in extra lighting may also deter any criminal activity, Cozine said.
Another uncertainty looming over Westside business owners is the pending Pier B On-Dock Rail Support Facility project, a Port of Long Beach effort that is intended to expand and enhance the existing Pier B rail facility. Some Westside businesses are in the direct path of the project. Port officials have told the Business Journal that they intend to mitigate all potential risks associated with the project, which includes relocation assistance for Westside businesses.
Utilities are also lacking for Westside business owners, Phillips said. Storm drain issues have led to water runoff into some of the streets, while aging fiber optic connections have led to pervasive problems with internet and phone line connectivity. “We’re not privy to that here on the Westside,” Phillips said.
McCrabb said some of these infrastructure issues have improved “considerably” over the last few years, but there are still “a few glitches here and there.” Regardless, the Westside is a far cry from the shape it was in a few years ago, McCrabb said. “Flooding was just a normal part of the year,” she said. “We did have flooding about five years ago, and it covered the entire street. And we would just clean up and keep moving forward.”
Melkonian said the public works department has at least one major project planned that would increase the size of storm drains at the intersections of Judson Avenue and 16th Street and Seabright Avenue and Cowles Street to remediate flooding. “We as city employees are going to do our best to make sure that we have a clean and safe environment for them to maintain their businesses,” Melkonian said.
Phillips said the Westside PAC is in the early stages of meeting with the City of Long Beach Economic Development Department to consider establishing a business improvement district specifically for Westside industrial business owners. The Westside PAC has met with the city once, and PAC members are meeting in early November to discuss options and developing a potential member database. Eric Romero, project manager with the city’s economic development department, said members of his team plan on attending this meeting.
The Westside’s homeless problem is part of a bigger nationwide epidemic, Phillips said. And although he said it’s not his place to offer a solution to the nationwide homeless problem, he did mention that developing a strategy starts with proactively working with community members and city government entities.
The City of Long Beach’s involvement in addressing the Westside’s chronic issues has Phillips feeling optimistic. “I do believe that all these issues are cyclical,” Phillips said. “They come in waves. And I do think that this will settle down and slow down a little bit. The business owners and property owners are grouping together to address these issues. And there are answers. We’re not saying we have those answers, but I think they will come.”