Middletown business owners concerned with homeless issues; police presence increased

After hearing concerns from downtown business owners related to the homeless issue and its negative impact on their bottom line, Middletown City Manager Paul Lolli said it’s time to implement a “disaster operation mode.”

He updated City Council members in an email after last week’s meeting attracted more than 100 people, including city officials, law enforcement officers, social service agency representatives, business owners and a few homeless.

Lolli said business owners told stories of customers being confronted by “hostile homeless individuals” who made threats to their personal safety and damage to personal property.

“This is unacceptable and we will not tolerate it,” he wrote to council.

He instructed police Chief David Birk to increase patrols in the downtown district and surrounding areas for at least the next six weeks. Lolli said he has assembled a small group of senior staff members who will report to a “command center type approach” five mornings a week.

“We will identify ways and means to reduce the homeless effect in Middletown and reduce the number of such individuals here!” he wrote to council. “We won’t solve the homeless issue; but we will run this city not the other way around.”

Some of those recommendations include talking to the unhoused in the homeless camps; using outreach teams to engage the homeless; connecting people to social services but not attract more homeless to Middletown; sharing of data, information and mapping of where the homeless are in the city; identifying problem areas; and deciding what to do with the homeless encampments and if they’re closed, how to deal with the homeless after they leave the camps.

The community meeting was arranged by Rodney Muterspaw, a first-year council member and the city’s former police chief. He called improving safety of those who patronize downtown businesses “priority No. 1” for city council.

He has talked to business owners who have told him they’re losing their livelihood due to the homeless population creating problems downtown.

“Gotten so out of control,” is how it was described by Muterspaw.

One of the most focal businesses owners has been Heather Gibson, who opened Triple Moon Coffee Shop eight years ago in the heart of downtown.

She said customers who have been approached by panhandlers downtown have told her they don’t feel safe. That sentiment can’t continue if Gibson wants to remain open, she said.

“I can’t be losing customers, but I am,” she said. “We have to create a partnership with the city so people feel safe down here. At this point, that’s the only thing we can do. We will not eliminate the homeless issue, but we have to make it not so overwhelming.”

She said the homeless are drawn downtown because that’s where the majority of social services are located. She said those who operate those agencies need to be more understanding of the needs of business owners.

While driving downtown Sunday to attend the sixth Hocus Pocus Family Fun Festival, Gibson said she saw people in sleeping bags near a downtown church on Verity Parkway. That’s not a good image for the for the city, she said.

“It’s getting worse and winter is coming,” Gibson said. She called homelessness “a problem no one knows how to solve.”

Birk has repeatedly said being homeless isn’t a crime. He estimates there are about 200 unhoused people living in Middletown and about 50% are from outside the city. He said many of the homeless come to Middletown from surrounding Butler County communities.

Lolli has said the city plans to operate warming centers with volunteers at local churches this winter. This was after the city didn’t know if Serving Homeless Alternate Lodging Of Middletown (SHALOM), a church-based homeless shelter, was going to reopen this year after being closed for two years due to COVID-19.

Bill Fugate, a leader of SHALOM, has said the group planned to house the homeless this winter, but withdrew after the city announced its plans. SHALOM volunteers will continue serving the unhoused breakfast from 8:30-9:30 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday at First United Methodist Church, according to Fugate.

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