Retail’s homeless problem

Jul 01, 2014

In the U.K., Tesco recently removed spikes outside one of its stores after being accused of using them to prevent homeless people from sleeping there.

Apparently, an increasing number of stores and apartment buildings in the U.K. are placing what’s being called "anti-homeless spikes" outside windows and doorways for such purposes. Drawing protests and wide coverage in the British tabloids in mid-June, an activist group, London Black Revolutionaries, poured concrete on the spikes and wrote "Homes Not Spikes" where the spikes were placed at Tesco’s store on Regent Street.

Tesco said the spikes were installed to curb smoking and other "antisocial" behavior, but they still removed them.

"Customers told us they were intimidated by anti-social behavior outside our Regent Street store and we put studs in place to try and stop it," a spokesman told The Guardian.

In a related circumstance, the famous Strand Book Store in lower Manhattan, last fall was accused of using a sprinkler system to evict homeless people sleeping there at night. Strand officials said the sprinklers were meant to clean the sidewalk, although store employees told the New York Post that the homeless were causing awkward encounters and messy cleanups for store associates who had to set up book carts outside every morning.

Beyond major cities, homeless or "vagrants" issues appear to be a problem at many resort towns and tourist areas.

An article last year by the Colorado Springs Business Journal detailed how the local police were placing more emphasis on managing the "downtown’s vagrant presence." Generally, peaceful begging is not an offense and said to be protected by the Constitution, but arrests can be made for aggressive panhandling, intoxication, obstructing sidewalks, using offensive words and other offenses.

Merchants in Colorado Springs were said to be banding together to invest in an around-the-clock security force and introducing a campaign to encourage donations to homeless groups instead of giving money to panhandlers. Other measures included installing wrought-iron features on downtown planters to stop people from sitting on them and converting trash cans to compactors to keep people from digging in them.

Beyond shoplifting, the panhandlers were said to be scaring off shoppers. Drug use was also a problem for those retailers offering public bathrooms.

What options are available for retailers in incidents involving homeless and/or vagrants? Would greater security, associate training or some other steps help?

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11 Comments on "Retail’s homeless problem"

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Paula Rosenblum

Gosh. The answer to this question really depends on the city. Miami has a ton of homeless people, but local charities and police have put a LOT of energy into moving them out of neighborhoods and into shelters.

If anything, they tend to congregate near highways. I think the option is straightforward. Call the police. Period.

Bob Phibbs

NYC proved policing made a difference. Compare the bustling shopping mecca today to where it was in the ’80s. A retail shop spends a lot of money for a location—particularly in Manhattan—to draw crowds and make them feel welcome. When they don’t, they don’t come.

The second day a coffeehouse opened in Santa Monica, California the franchisee told me he had to put a lock on the bathroom doors, something he was adamant he didn’t want to do. He told me the homeless go to the libraries and have email and share who has a clean bathroom they can use.

I’m all for social nets being secure and helping those less fortunate and when it comes to affecting someone’s business, I believe retailers are within their rights to find creative ways to actively maintain their stores.

Frank Riso

Retailers need to be doing two things. One is educating their store staff with the proper way to deal with any homeless people and any situation involving them at their stores. The homeless are people just like us that have come upon hard times and need our care. Second, more retailers need to identify homeless charities and dedicate funds to support them and, where appropriate, offering jobs for them.

Max Goldberg

Retailers have to walk a fine line. They don’t want to lose customers and they cannot appear to be unsympathetic to the plight of homeless people. Retailers should work with local governments to develop locations for homeless to sleep and gather, and should encourage consumers to give to homeless groups rather than panhandlers. Unfortunately, there is no simple solution.

HY Louis
3 years 2 months ago

You must protect your customers and your property. The customer has the money that keeps your business in business. Allowing the vagrants, prostitutes and drug addicts to intimidate and scare off customers cannot be tolerated. Vagrants and drug addicts will always find sanctuary where they feel comfortable. Raise the discomfort level and they will move on. The options available are spikes, sprinklers and an aggressive security force. The Las Vegas casinos do an excellent job in preserving a comfortable environment for patrons despite the large number of panhandling vagrants. The customer’s level of comfort has to be top priority. My dad owned a supermarket and we had to deal with some of this. What he would do is offer them a job. That scared about 90 percent of them away. About 10 percent would agree to do some odd jobs and they actually seemed to pose minimal threat to the customers. Sometimes customers would offer them more odd jobs to do. That’s the exception, not the rule.

Lee Peterson

Here’s an option: human kindness. I once owned a store that had vagrant issues. After arguing with various people sleeping in front of my store for months, I decided to buy them a cup of coffee and some donuts one morning. I shared them with them, talked to them for a while, then asked them to move. They did so with no issues. I would talk to them on the street after that, ask how they were doing and do the coffee thing occasionally, but the problems ceased pretty quickly after taking that much of a different tack.

I realize that if you have several stores with problems that are perhaps more severe, it’s not that simple, but still. How about trying something from a totally different perspective? Spikes and hosings? C’mon. I’m sure, with all the creative people we have in most retail companies, a much better solution can be arrived at. At the end of the day, the Golden Rule should apply.

Ed Rosenbaum

Yes, this is a serious problem in many locales. But taking excessive steps like planting spikes is obviously not going to be the resolution. Local officials here have taken steps to find places for the homeless to sleep. It has helped somewhat. But this is a national problem that is not going to be curtailed simply by finding a place for the homeless to sleep. Steps have to be taken on a local and national level to come up with solutions to reduce the numbers of those who are homeless.

Kai Clarke

Enforce our laws on vagrancy, panhandling, etc., and this becomes less of an issue. Greater external security helps as well, but isn’t that why we support our local police? Local police are part of the problem when they fail to support the local laws required by downtown store owners.

Mel Kleiman

This is a problem for the government, not the retailer. The homeless population may have some rights. But when their behavior interferes with my ability to do business in a lawful manner then the government needs to act. As a business owner I pay taxes for services and I should be able to expect those services to be rendered by the proper authority.

If I wish to wash the front of my store at 3 a.m. or any other time, that is my right. I do not see the people who are sleeping there paying me for the right to use my property or even helping to take care of it.

Tony Orlando

This is a tough issue to deal with, as there are some homeless folks who really want to raise themselves up and are looking for some kindness. That being said, you can not walk out of your hotel in major cities without being harassed by professional bums, and ladies of the day and evening.

This is what angers people, and I don’t blame the businesses for trying to clean up their area of town.

Many of these folks will not work a real job, and they think it is their right to mess up your bathroom, and take up space inside your diner or coffee shop, while asking for money from the customers who come in. I live in a small town, where the problem is minimal, and I don’t have an answer for the city business owners who have to deal with this every day. Have the police called as needed, and enforce the policies that will protect their business from becoming a commune.

Craig Sundstrom

For major retailers such as Tesco—who can yield substantial political and media attention—perhaps they should consider deducting the cost of extra security and cleanup from their property taxes (or however police services are paid for in the UK) as it would seem the local government has “failed to do its job.” Smaller merchants probably wouldn’t gain much from such tactics, but they’ve always had their nuclear option: closing down…which is no small part of the reason almost every downtown in the U.S. from Bangor, Maine to Honolulu is a retail ghost town.


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