Modica’s Deli has been a staple in the East Village Arts District for more than 26 years, but for the first time, owner Orsa Modica said she’s considering closing up shop.
She’s not alone.
Residents and business owners throughout Downtown Long Beach say the area is in a crisis of crime and homelessness, with spikes in petty theft and vandalism, open drug use and people relieving themselves on sidewalks. Growing numbers of individuals on the streets are in desperate need of mental health care.
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The concerns come as Long Beach has seen a 62% surge in homelessness since 2020, while overall property crime in the Downtown area has jumped more than 23% this year. The situation has become so dire that the city this month temporarily closed its new $48 million Billie Jean King Library out of security concerns for staff.
The problem grew worse in the pandemic and has “exploded” in recent months, said Rosemary Palermo, who has lived in the Cooper Arms building for more than a decade.
“We all carry pepper spray,” Palermo said. “We will not even walk out to the garbage without pepper spray on our key chains. It’s never been this bad.”
Officials, for their part, said the city is ramping up police patrols and homeless services while working to address a nuanced problem with no easy solutions.
Business owners and city officials emphasize that homelessness and crime is not new to Downtown. But they say the numbers of severely mentally ill people on the streets today has increased, exacerbating crime and quality-of-life problems that took hold in cities across the U.S. during the pandemic.
Officials note that homeless individuals themselves have been victimized, and it’s not clear if the rise in property crime is connected to homelessness.
Given the scale of the issue and the universal consensus that the current crisis is unsustainable, the Post sought interviews with the mayor, the police chief, the councilmember representing Downtown and other officials to get a better understanding of the city’s plan to address homelessness and crime in the area. Their availability to discuss these concerns varied, and the officials who did agree to interviews offered few specifics on how the Downtown area could immediately be helped.
Mayor Robert Garcia, who is expected to win a bid for a Congress in November, gave an eight-minute interview from Japan, where he was on a trade mission with the Port of Long Beach last week.
While he said he is concerned about the situation in Downtown, Garcia expects things to improve as the city moves past the pandemic.
Garcia, who was a longtime Downtown resident, noted that crime is still significantly lower compared to previous decades. Nonetheless, Long Beach this year added 20 more bicycle and foot patrol officer positions throughout the city to ramp up patrols, the mayor said.
He urged residents and businesses to hold tight as “we will pull out of this.”
“The crisis around the unhoused and mentally ill and the kinds of crimes that are happening in Downtown are very disturbing, but it’s not something we can solve overnight,” he said. “We’re doing our part, but it has been tough. No question about it.”
Nancy Downs, who owns more than a dozen buildings with retail shops in Downtown, said she needs more answers from city leaders. Downs said some of her tenants have talked about leaving, and she’s concerned about more vacant storefronts.
“The message from the mayor is way off because we can’t sit tight while businesses are closing and revenue is down and we are going to end up where we were 25 years ago, when the buildings were empty Downtown,” she said. “They’re not going to be able to rent all these new residential towers they’re building if they don’t do something about the increase in crime.”
The Long Beach Police Department said its Chief Wally Hebeish was unavailable for an interview, but the department granted a 10-minute interview with Deputy Chief Gerardo Prieto.
Prieto said officers have been working with hotels and business owners to add lighting and security cameras.
“What we’ve done in that area is that we’ve maintained open lines of communications with business partners and resident groups to identify issues and hear concerns,” he said, adding that the department’s South Division commander meets routinely with neighborhood groups.
While the department still has the same amount of budgeted patrol officer positions, he said, the LBPD has used overtime funding to hire additional officers to increase patrol in the Downtown area since last year.
He said the department added four bicycle patrol officers for Downtown that use crime stats and information from businesses and residents to target specific hotspots. The officers are fitted with new bicycles purchased with federal pandemic relief aid.
The department is also planning to add foot patrol in the next few weeks, with more details to come, he said. Prieto said more boots on the ground can help deter crime and provide extra resources.
“They’re approachable and more visible,” he said.
But while the city is working to increase police presence, residents said they’ve received few answers as to what is being done to help mentally ill people in the streets.
“The police rarely come, and when they do come they don’t take reports, so it doesn’t appear in their statistics, so their perceptions of what’s going on is really skewed by lack of information,” Palermo said.
Modica, whose deli at the corner of Linden Avenue and Ocean Boulevard has long been a popular lunch spot for LBPD officers, said she’s seen a significant increase in people who are severely mentally ill.
In an incident this summer, she said, a man naked from waist down walked up to her patio as customers were having lunch and grabbed a little girl’s lemonade. He then ran inside the deli carrying a sharp stick as the chef scrambled to hide the kitchen knives.
The man eventually wandered off, but for Modica, it was the last straw in a string of frightening encounters.
“I don’t feel safe in this city,” she said. “I’m out policing my corner every day. I’m exhausted. I understand homeless people can be victims of crime too, but the people that have been coming here recently, they’re very mentally ill and they’re dangerous.”
The LBPD in a statement said police are often called to respond to incidents involving homeless individuals experiencing mental illness, and if someone meets the state criteria to be involuntarily held for 72 hours, known as a 5150 hold, they will be transported to a medical facility for treatment. But with a shortage of psychiatric treatment beds, many have nowhere to go.
Moreover, the department said some misdemeanor crimes must be committed in the presence of an officer for the officer to make an arrest.
“When the calling party is a passerby or is unwilling to affect an arrest, an officer’s options are limited, however we still direct our officers to take the most appropriate action to resolve the issue,” the department said.
Long Beach City Prosecutor Doug Haubert said he often hears concerns as to why police aren’t arresting individuals who are committing misdemeanors, but in many cases, officers’ hands are tied due to laws reducing criminal misdemeanors and early release from jails.
“Law enforcement watches as people they arrest are released quickly and that has to be demoralizing for them to keep arresting the same people over and over again, only to see them being released immediately,” he said. “I feel that frustration, too.”
City officials have said they’re working to figure out why Long Beach has seen a significant increase in homelessness and crime, but residents said they believe it’s partly due to the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s practice of forcing passengers off its trains at the end of the A-Line in Downtown, when the train closes for cleaning around 1 a.m.
“There’s people who get off the train and they have no idea where they are. They think they’re still in Los Angeles,” Palermo said. “And there’s no supportive services for them. They have no support and nowhere to go.”
After hearing testimony from concerned residents and business owners, the City Council this month voted to send Metro a letter asking it to reevaluate its practice of forcing people off the train at its terminus Downtown. The Metro board, at the behest of L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn, is meeting to discuss the issue on Thursday.
Mary Zendejas, whose 1st District includes Downtown, said she would support a greater police presence in the area and wants to explore more ways to work with the county on mental health support.
Zendejas did not have specific details on ways the city could address the mental health issues for the homeless. She said there are many challenges.
“Unfortunately, I feel we are getting overwhelmed with the needs of the unhoused, and just when we feel like we’re getting close to addressing the needs, especially with Downtown, we just get inundated with even more people experiencing homelessness,” she said. “We don’t have the component that we should be able to help these individuals with mental illness.”
Zendejas said she’s hoping for relief with a new, statewide approach called CARE Court, which would connect those with severe mental illness to a court-ordered treatment plan for up to two years.
For now, local business owners say they’re concerned the problems will impact their bottom line and overall visitors to Long Beach.
Austin Metoyer, CEO of the Downtown Long Beach Alliance, said crime, safety and homelessness are top concerns for local businesses. In one of its efforts, the organization for the first time is planning to hire a homelessness outreach coordinator to connect people with city and county resources.
“Everything is coming to a boiling point for people,” he said. “Everyone can agree this is acute in the Downtown area and it needs to be addressed.”
While Downtown has long had issues, Jeremy Harris, president of the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, said the frequency and brazenness has reached crisis levels. He noted the recent closure of the Main Library due to safety concerns and a fatal stabbing spree on Monday that stretched from Anaheim Street to the beach bike path.
The girlfriend of the man accused in the fatal stabbing said he was not homeless, but had recently gone off his medication and was in the midst of a mental health crisis.
“Now and beyond this current election cycle, all Long Beach leaders need to be stepping up their involvement to create real solutions to these increasingly volatile issues,” Harris said.