Downtown Middletown business owners upset with city on homeless issue

Business owners reacted last week to comments by the police chief about the homeless issue in the city, agreeing that they believe many are coming from outside of the city into Middletown in continuing an ongoing discussion about the issue.

Middletown City Council had a work session discussion on Jan. 8 at which they heard from police and a local expert about problems with “importing” homeless people into the community as well as some local overnight shelters dropping people off downtown for the day.

Council was told by local expert Kathy Becker there were more drug addicted and mentally ill people in the community because of changes in the law, adding that “the current system is not responsive,” according to the city council minutes.

Becker suggested Middletown and Hamilton need to ask the Butler County commissioners for help. She suggested a day center with staff present, food, coffee and social services available. There would be rules, and the center could provide health services and vaccines, she said.

Following that meeting, the consensus of council was for a consolidated approach and rules for dropoffs.

Last week, police chief Rodney Muterspaw posted a response on Facebook about a question he gets regularly: “Why do we have this problem in our city and what are (you) doing about it?”

Calling it “the elephant in the room,” Muterspaw said 75 percent of the city’s homeless are not from Middletown.

“They are from other cities, counties and states. Nobody knows more than our officers, who deal with it daily,” he wrote.

He praised the various nonprofit organizations that help the homeless in the city.

Muterspaw said the city has “a huge problem with other cities (they know who they are), dumping homeless people here because they don’t want them in their city. Many times our officers respond to a person wandering around downtown only to find they were given a voucher for a cab from another city and sent here, even though they have never been to Middletown. Others are brought here by other city police agencies and dumped in front of the Hope House or bus station, even late at night when they are closed.”

He wrote, “People are not objects, you can’t just discard them because you think they make your community look bad. I wish some cities would take care of their own as well as we take care of their own.”

Muterspaw and City Manager Doug Adkins were not available for comment for this story.

Since Muterspaw’s post, downtown business owners have been speaking up on social media asking the city for help that is affecting their businesses.

A group of downtown business owners have been discussing the issue on a private chat list and they’re encouraging other business owners to come to the City Council meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday air their concerns and issues.

Ami Vitori, a downtown business owner and council member, sent an email Wednesday to her fellow council members about the issue and wanted more information on those providing vouchers. She suggested Middletown “call out” these municipalities, entities and other bad actors and who are not responding to conversations that Adkins and Muterspaw had with them in the past. Vitori added with winter coming, it’s only going to get worse.

“We need to get this information out to the public because it seems shaming them may be the only thing that could move the meter,” Vitori said. “I’ve had multiple downtown business owners reach out to want to join this effort. In the last few weeks we’ve seen so many new faces downtown that clearly are not from here.”

Heather Gibson, owner of the Triple Moon Coffee Company, said that “we’ve known we’ve had a problem for awhile and I’ve implored city officials to help for more than a year.”

Gibson said the new group of homeless are more aggressive and belligerent than in the past and they’ve started panhandling for money and cigarettes inside her coffee shop. They also hang around her business because of the free wi-fi she offers customers.

Because of that, Gibson has become less compassionate and doesn’t give out water or coffee. She said some of the people are screaming and cussing at her and her staff in her business when they say “no” and want them to leave.

She has staff members who have safety concerns about working alone in the morning and has customers raise the same concerns and both are impacting her business.

Gibson said she is taking steps to deter the problem and protect her business and employees. Those steps may include shutting down the wi-fi at closing or making it password-protected and reducing hours by closing earlier in the evening.

“Now this is costing me money and I have customers complaining. We’re done and we’re not putting up with that anymore,” she said. “We don’t need it. And for the city to turn their backs on this, if someone gets hurt, it’s on them.”

Amy Wray, who owns Gypsy Soul Healing located in The Living Tree downtown, said she’s had multiple people in The Living Tree tell her they were dropped in Middletown from Hamilton. She said some communities are taking a “not in my back yard” approach and shipping them to Middletown.

“Other cities dumping their homeless in downtown Middletown isn’t a new issue, however, in the last couple months it has escalated so much that is downtown business owners (as well as downtown residents) have had enough and we are demanding action to be taken” she said.

Mayor Larry Mulligan said he’s aware of the concerns raised by the downtown business owners on social media and said council is continuing to look at the issue. He said he understood the city was in contact with other cities about the issue.

“This is an issue communities continue to face and its a challenge for the region, but communities have to work together to solve the issue,” he said. “I don’t think people should be left on Middletown’s front door step. With the recent uptick of problems, this is something that needs to be revisited.”

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