Creative Approaches to a Very Complicated and Sensitive Issue
As property owners or property managers, approaching the issue of people who are homeless living or congregating around parking areas has become one of the most intricate and complicated issues we face today. Finding solutions can be difficult and require collaboration from different organizations within our communities. For parking operations, trespassing and panhandling by people who are homeless can lower comfort levels of customers and employees at the facility. More serious situations can arise when vandalism, overnight camps, and theft occur.
Homelessness is an extremely complex social problem that affects the quality of life in our communities and can provide safety risks. As we can all see, there is a fine line between homelessness as a social issue and a criminal issue. Many homeless are on the streets because of substance abuse, mental illness, or both. In addition, youth homelessness is increasing. Approximately 30 percent of people experiencing homelessness are younger than the age of 24, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development 2018 annual report. For many youths, instability in their homes forces them out onto the streets before they are adults. Family experiences like childhood abuse and/or neglect, domestic violence, parental substance use, rejection based on how they identify, and family conflict are just a few of the leading causes.
So, what steps can you take to safeguard your facilities from crimes and incidents related to the homelessness issue? There are no easy remedies, however, here are some solutions that have been used to avoid problems with the homeless population that can help keep your property and your staff safe.
Heavy Metal Music to the Rescue
One of my favorite examples of solving an issue with the homeless population is from a parking structure that was in the Midwest. This parking structure had a real issue with the homeless individuals sleeping in their stairwells and making a daily mess that included trash, bodily excretions, and storage of their belongings. The smell alone was keeping customers away. All the typical solutions of calling the police and having them removed, installing fencing, hiring a security guard, and barricading off certain sections of the facility all failed.
Then, one day, inspiration struck, and the parking manager had a great idea. The manager went and purchased a stereo system that included speakers and installed them throughout the structure. Then starting at 11pm and continuing until 6am the manager would randomly play heavy metal music through the speakers at random intervals. The randomness of the loud heavy metal music made it impossible for the individuals to get any sleep. The first night they tore out the speakers. The manager then reinstalled the speakers where they could no longer be removed and started the heavy metal music again. It only took two weeks for the entire homeless population to move out of his facility. While there were a few complaints from customers and surrounding businesses, once the manager explained the reason for the music, there was full support of the program.
Free Yourself from the Trash
My second favorite example of solving an issue with the homeless population revolves around trash. I am sure that many of you have dealt with people going through your trash cans looking for food and other items. While this is not a major issue, it becomes one when they leave the discarded trash all over the ground and it blows around your parking lot or structure.
A hard limit for me is when trash cans become bathroom facilities. An operator I know in the South had a similar limit. After dealing with this trash can frustration, he took what most would consider a drastic and crazy idea and he removed ALL the trash cans from every operation! I told him that was nuts, and that his customers would have no place to put their trash. I thought this would create more work for his maintenance team and would not really keep these individuals from coming onto his lots. Man, was I wrong! Not only did removing all trash cans remove their reason for coming to his parking lots, but his customers also actually littered less. That is right, less! Now I am a believer and tell this story to a lot of operators to “free” themselves of the cost and burdens of trashcans.
No Shrubs for You
My last example is also from a parking operator in the South who has recently experienced an increase in homeless camps around the downtown core district. The boundary lines of this camp just kept growing and growing to the point where they have encroached on to some of his parking lots. He discovered that the landscaping on his lots, mainly the shrubs were being used to store personal belongings, hide in, and sleep. The day after discovering this, he ordered his maintenance team to remove all shrubs from his landscaping and replaced them with cactus, sand, and large rocks. Each day, when the maintenance team made their rounds, they would rake the sand into patterns. When customers asked why he was doing this, he responded with, “we are adding Zen Gardens to our lots.” They wanted to provide a place for parking patrons to release some of their stress after a hard day. He would leave inexpensive plastic rakes for customers to use to make patterns in the sand. Since this program began, I have seen firsthand people drawing patterns in these Zen Gardens on more than one occasion, but have yet to see any homeless people gathering at the lots.
We Did Not Start the Fire
Homelessness is a complicated social problem that has existed for decades, even centuries. Many politicians, communities, and organizations have worked to find a long-term solution(s) to reduce or eliminate homelessness. The examples here on strategies to protect your property are in no way meant to cover up or gloss over the overall social issue of homelessness. It reminds me of the song by Billy Joel, “We didn’t start the fire, it was always burning since the world’s been turning… No, we did not light it, but we are trying to fight it.”
While we as owners and operators need to make our properties safe, we also need to be honest about the impact homelessness has on us all. I encourage you to coordinate with other partners such as the local Mental Health Professionals, Law Enforcement, and Health and Human Services in your area.
Katherine Beaty is VP of Implementation at Tez Technology. She can be reached at Katherine@teztechnology.com