MID-CITY — The urine, feces and vomit were early morning irritations for Adrienne Burrows. It wasn’t until her young son picked up a crack pipe while walking to a nearby park that Burrows became alarmed by the increased presence of transients and rubbish in her Mid-City neighborhood.
Burrows, a doctor who provides care for homeless people on Downtown L.A.’s Skid Row, lives just steps from the intersection of 26th Street and Santa Monica Boulevard, an active corner that is home to a CVS pharmacy, strip mall, Metro Rapid and Big Blue bus stops and a low-income housing complex.
There has always been litter and a few transients, but when outdoor furniture store Berk’s closed a little over a year ago, Burrows and some of her neighbors noticed an increase, forcing her and her daughters to step over garbage and bodily fluids on their walk to McKinley Elementary School. Normally the employees of Berk’s would wash and sweep the sidewalk around their building. When they ceased operations, they also ceased the cleaning.
“Once they left it created a place where the homeless could hang out and sleep, which we didn’t have previously,” she said. “It was not only an eyesore, but also sort of an invitation for others walking by from the local coffee shop to just throw their trash down, too. It kind of snowballed into this disgusting area … .”
In Santa Monica, known for being a home for the homeless, seeing transients sleeping in public spaces is nothing new. Neither are vacant storefronts, a symptom of the sluggish economy and rapidly rising rents that push some business to close up shop. The combination left Burrows and her neighbors puzzled. Who should they contact to address the issue? Was there a solution, or would they just have to accept it, a symptom of living in the city by the sea?
In 2008, code compliance officers had their hands full dealing with complaints from residents about vacant properties, mainly homes being remolded or made into condos. Sometimes getting the proper permits stalled the projects. Others were put on hold because of a lack of financing. There were concerns about trespassing, drug and alcohol use and sometimes camping; the same kinds of concerns Burrows has.
“It really doesn’t take long for problems to start surfacing,” said Mari Ostendorf, a mother of two young girls who lives a few doors down from Burrows. “It only took a few months. Then it just became a daily nuisance.”
Ostendorf first reached out to the leasing agent for the old Berk’s property. Her concerns fell on deaf ears, she said. The leasing agent told the Daily Press that they do not deal with the management of the property.
Ostendorf and Burrows next reached out to their local neighborhood group, but ultimately it came down to calling their neighborhood resource officer, Scott McGee with the Santa Monica Police Department. Neighborhood resource officers are like mini sheriffs who are responsible for their own section of the city, interacting with neighbors and merchants to identify problems early on before they get worse.
McGee responded within a few days, made contact with a woman who had been sleeping at the Berk’s property and offered to hook her up with a homeless services provider. The woman left and hasn’t returned. McGee also contacted city officials and had maintenance workers steam clean the sidewalk. As of last week he was in the process of contacting the property owner to find a more permanent solution.
“Homeless encampments like these are misdemeanor crimes that require a victim to prosecute for the offense,” said Sgt. Jay Moroso, spokesman for the SMPD. “As such, the police department cannot expect that a business owner will be available at an abandoned property to assist us with that type of an arrest, 24/7. Instead, we encourage owners of abandoned properties or any property with a trespassing problem to file a letter with the Santa Monica Police Department so that we can make the arrests on their behalf.”
If a “trespassing letter” isn’t on file and there are no other crimes being committed, police are left with no other option but to move on. The old Berk’s property, located at 2520 Santa Monica Blvd., had no such letter on file as of last week.
“[T]he officer can ask the trespasser to leave and hope they comply,” Moroso said.
The SMPD is currently working on a public service announcement to make people aware of trespassing letters. The PSAs should be broadcast on CityTV, City Hall’s public access channel. In addition, the SMPD is in the final stages of offering an online service for filing trespass letters to ease the process, Moroso said.
“As good neighbors, business owners of abandoned buildings should take responsibility of their properties by starting with actively monitoring them,” Moroso advised. “If trespassing is taking place on their property, they need to take the proper steps to correct the problem.”
That includes filing a trespass letter, installing lights and cameras, surrounding the property with fencing and, if the problem is serious, hiring security.
For Burrows and Ostendorf, their concerns have been addressed, for now. They’re still concerned that if the property remains vacant for much longer the feces, beer bottles and urine will return, forcing them to continue to have uncomfortable conversations with their young children.
“It’s been an interesting civics lesson,” Ostendorf said. “I recommend anyone with a similar situation to start with their (neighborhood resource officer). I think so many don’t know the NROs exist.”