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Ocean Beach has long been known for its uncommon tolerance, even acceptance, of its homeless population. It has grown accustomed to the seasonal ebb and flow of young traveling “tumbleweeds” and homeless veterans who find restful haven stringing jewelry or strumming guitars on the seawall and grassy knolls that run the length of the beach.
But this winter, retailers along Ocean Beach’s Newport Avenue, still struggling to emerge from the slump of the economic downturn, have found their sympathy waning.
Incidents involving a younger population of homeless who have passed through Ocean Beach in recent months have given the community an outlet to vent broader frustrations over the increasing homeless presence there and the activities — like panhandling, drug and alcohol use — associated with the transient population. Residents have said some of the younger homeless have been more aggressive and insistent when asking for money, which they fear will drive visitors and customers away.
Heightening that sentiment is the perception among locals that many of the newer homeless are traveling youth who are homeless by choice, not necessity.
The frustrations, which Ocean Beach residents say had been quietly building for months, flared late last month, after a nude and drugged out swimmer struggled with lifeguards and attracted about a dozen police officers to try to restrain him. Locals assumed he was one of the homeless youth some call “the kids,” though he was later revealed to be a San Diego State University student.
But the incident, said David Surwilo, Ocean Beach’s community relations police officer, was enough to unleash public calls for greater police enforcement against the homeless and stoke an intense public debate over how much tolerance may be too much in one of San Diego’s most liberal enclaves.
It has played out in the pages of the community newspaper and on the blog OB Rag.
On Wednesday, a regular meeting of the Ocean Beach Town Council turned into a public forum where locals discussed what they see as a growing problem affecting quality of life and the success of their businesses.
“They find they’re losing business because groups of these kids are discouraging customers from coming to their stores,” said Denny Knox, president of the Ocean Beach Mainstreet Association, a local business group. “Customers are checking out of hotels because they don’t want to stay around that. It’s a tough business climate out there, and every sale is really precious to these merchants.”
Fliers that have recently circulated along Newport Avenue have caused more than a few double takes, their content surprising even in a community that takes special pride in embracing the alternative voice, and the homeless.
They have taken aim at the younger homeless, decrying them as “trolls” and calling for them to leave the neighborhood. Using newspaper headline clippings to spell out complaints, the fliers demand that the homeless residents earn their own money, and “get lost.”
Police activity in Ocean Beach accelerated in the wake of a story expressing business owners’ frustrations that ran in the Peninsula Beacon, the local newspaper, not long after the swimmer’s arrest.
Businesses noticed a marked decrease in the number of young homeless in the days following the story, “but then they all just came right back,” said Courtney McCarraher, who works at the Pride Surf and Skate Shop.
Ocean Beach’s homeless say they have continued feeling greater pressure to move along.
They have noticed a progressive constriction of some of the freedoms that for years have made Ocean Beach their refuge.
Recent citywide bans on beach smoking and drinking — activities many openly admit they enjoy — have limited the spots where they can spend their days socializing. The San Diego Police Department has stepped up enforcement of illegal activity like public urination and drug use, Surwilo said. In the eyes of homeless residents, they — not the activity — have been the targets.
And the flyers, inflammatory to a degree previously unknown in the community, have given Ocean Beach’s homeless residents the sense that they’re now unwelcome in one of the few neighborhoods that’s always accepted them.
“There’s an ideological battle,” said one homeless man, 25, who goes only by Green and has been homeless in Ocean Beach for three years. He said economic pressures, as they tend to do, have left business owners grasping for emotional outlets.
“Everybody’s going broke,” Green said. “Even rich people are going broke by rich people’s standards. They grew up doing all they were told they were supposed to do to live in prosperity. That pisses them off.”
Some of the homeless who have lived in Ocean Beach for years also wonder whether the neighborhood is, in some senses, growing up.
Donnie Moss has lived in and out of doors in Ocean Beach for all of his 32 years, and said he’s watched Ocean Beach slowly reinvent itself recently.
An influx of clothing boutiques have begun to replace the restaurants and antique stores that until now have dominated the Newport Avenue retail scene.
“The girls around aren’t wearing tie dye or leftover crack shirts anymore,” Moss said “They’re wearing designer labels.”
He points to a vacant building that will soon house a Pizza Port, a popular restaurant with locations in other beach communities and which is planning an Ocean Beach location.
“That’s a sign of the times,” Moss said. “That’s a Pacific Beach sort of place. By attracting a higher clientele, they’re going to make more money.”
Knox of the Mainstreet Association said the issue is more narrow than the implication that Ocean Beach is gentrifying.
Cleanup of graffiti, cigarette butts and debris left behind by the growing presence of homeless residents, she said, are straining the business community’s resources.
“People think the city does all that,” she said. “We do it all, and people have gotten pushed to the wall on it. If the rest of us have to live by rules, it should be evenly dealt out.”
At the town council meeting Wednesday, concerns ranged from the lack of accessible public restrooms to whether police were targeting not only illegal activity but the general appearance of homelessness.
Some business owners said behavior like public urination and fights among younger homeless people were driving Ocean Beach visitors, and customers, away. The housed and the houseless both pleaded for mutual respect.
Homeless residents acknowledged that their presence frustrated business owners concerned about dipping sales, but also urged understanding.
“It doesn’t really affect us, but for them, I guess it does,” said Aja, a homeless man who arrived in Ocean Beach two months ago. “We don’t really notice it because we’ve always been poor.”
Please contact Adrian Florido directly at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.