Downtown homeless outreach sparks complaints from residents and business owners
Twice a day, seven days a week, dozens of people line up outside the brick building on the corner of Third Street and Linden Avenue ready to accept whatever hot meal the volunteers at Christian Outreach in Action have prepared that day. It’s a guarantee and something they can count on, and it’s been that way for almost 40 years.
On busy days, the COA, a non-denominational nonprofit organization that provides food, free diapers and other services, serves up to 1,000 people, according to Executive Director Dixie Dohrmann.
Recently, however, community members have called on the city to relocate the COA closer to the city’s Multi-Service Center on the westside.
Supporters of a petition calling for its relocation have cited an increase in crime, violence, drug use, yelling, loitering, trash, urine and public defecation near their residences and business; the list of grievances goes on.
“Everyone is familiar with the litany of problems created by the unchecked homeless population as the feeding at COA pulls them to the area and keeps them here,” the petition reads.
The issue was brought to the attention of the Downtown Long Beach Alliance, a property and business improvement district composed of local business owners, city workers and community members who are committed to cultivating, preserving and promoting a “healthy, safe and prosperous Downtown for all,” as stated in their mission.
During DLBA’s meeting Thursday morning, Joe Harding, the person behind the petition, spoke to the group about the issues he and others have noticed.
“We are taking a creative, different and, yes, controversial look at what may be causing and adding to these issues on a daily basis,” he said.
Harding argued that the COA’s business model of providing food on a daily basis is to blame for the increase in delinquency near the area. “Those showing up for food come and never leave. They surround us all day long,” he said.
According to Harding, stakeholders have been left out of the conversation surrounding homeless outreach and assistance and at times, at the expense of the safety and comfort of business owners and employees in Downtown.
“We want our streets back. We want our small businesses to thrive. What we’re dealing with on a daily basis is doing just the opposite,” Harding said.
The COA says they have heard the complaints and they understand, but the problem has nothing to do with the services they provide; officials said their business model has remained the same since it began in 1987.
There is no doubt that the issue has gotten worse since the pandemic began, said Dohrmann.
Since 2020, homelessness in Long Beach increased by 62%. Over one-third (1,214) reported having a severe mental illness, while 704 people reported having chronic medical conditions and 951 had substance abuse issues, according to data from this year’s point-in-time count.
The issue, Dohrmann suspects, perhaps became more noticeable at the start of the pandemic when the COA had to align with the county’s indoor dining restrictions. People now line up outside and take their meals to go instead of enjoying their meals inside.
Dohrmann has worked at the COA for over 20 years and at times questions, “What would they do if we didn’t help them?”
After first hearing about the complaints a few weeks ago, the COA ramped up its cleaning efforts, making sure to pick up trash on the street and in alleyways at least twice a week. Twice a month, they invite the public to volunteer to do a larger sweep of the area.
On top of meal distribution, the COA also provides free diapers every Friday for struggling mothers, a food bank for low-income families and a free clinic.
“I do understand, as a business person, I do understand (the complaints) and I understand that the homeless are a problem for some of them. It’s something that we can’t totally control,” said Dohrmann. “It’s everybody’s issue … We’re doing our part to help it.”
“They should be proud that their community does something for people,” she said of those who support the petition.
Eric Lopez, director of Public Works, told the group that there is not much the city can do in terms of relocating the organization or their operations as they are independent. “We don’t have the authority to move private enterprises or private businesses or residents from their property,” said Lopez.
They will, however, be opening discussions between both parties to talk further about what can be done to ensure that the COA is operating harmoniously with and not causing a disturbance to residents, acknowledging that the issue is complex and requires proper attention to address.
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