Over time, migrations of transients have come and gone, setting up temporary residence along Newport Avenue and the OB Pier — homeless veterans, the mentally ill, the down-and-outers — most just keeping to themselves and wishing to be left undisturbed, according to observers.
But residents and merchants are becoming vocal against a new set of particularly aggressive, panhandling free spirits ranging in age from 18 to 26 — some, according to police, from as far away as Canada and many apparently hailing from Portland and other parts of Oregon — that has set down temporary stakes in Ocean Beach.
Denny Knox, executive director of the Ocean Beach MainStreet Association (OBMA), said the young travelers seem to feel entitled to claim the sidewalks by blocking access to passersby, using the opportunity to fleece tourists and visitors for money.
“They seem to forget we are the people who live here and who make a living here,” Knox said. “We welcome anyone who respects us and who lets us be safe, but some of them are rude and panhandle aggressively. They block the seawall and the sidewalks.
“ … They want cash for drugs or alcohol, to have things their way, but they don’t want to be told what to do (by police),” she said. “This has a big impact on our local businesses when it comes to tourism and visitors. When times are tough and every dollar makes a difference (to merchants) to keep people employed and to make their obligations, you just want to shake someone. … It’s an intimidation factor, and there is no reason for it.”
Knox said at the very least, it’s an annoyance that should not work against the allure of OB.
“It’s just not right to have to be panhandled and pestered,” Knox said. “It discourages customers and tourists. And nobody wants to be hassled.”
She added the wayward visitors are further tarnishing the peaceful, welcoming image of Ocean Beach by destroying plants and drawing on resources paid for by OBMA members, sleeping in the doorways of local businesses and in residential areas, urinating in public and letting dogs run unleashed with no thought to cleaning up after the animals.
Though seemingly homeless and sporting the appearance of the stereotypical street person, many of the youths carry ATM cards and cell phones, and apparently come from affluent families outside California, living the nomadic lifestyle by choice, according to Dave Surwilo, community relations officer for the San Diego Police Department’s Western Division.
The young visitors are also lured because of the cool locale and generosity of the Ocean Beach community in the way of free meals and shelter, and access to public showers and restrooms, and even free or low-cost Internet access at the library, he said.
Several of the travelers also appear to be following the Tribute to the Reggae Legends concert circuit from city to city, according to Surwilo. The tour’s next appearance is at the San Diego Sports Arena on Tuesday, Feb. 15.
The ripple effect caused by the young nomads has captured the attention of local print and broadcast media over the last two weeks.
More than their presence, the behavior of these young traveling groups has residents and merchants frustrated, on edge and lighting up the blog boards of the OB Rag (www.obrag.org) with a mix of cries for action, personal responsibility, calm and caution against police overreaction.
In response over the last few days, officers have stepped up enforcement by ticketing some of the young travelers, running priors and checking for warrants — trying to make their presence known, according to Surwilo.
“We’re working with the Ocean Beach Town Council, the OBMA’s Crime Prevention Committee, merchants and citizens on a regular basis,” said Surwilo. “It’s no longer an us-versus-them (police against the community) mentality. We’re now all on the same set of music. We (the police department) hear what they are saying and we are addressing the needs.
“Our captain is stressing enforcement, enforcement, enforcement,” he said. “But we’ve all heard from City Hall and the mayor that because of budget constraints, service and wait times will increase. That’s a given. There is only X amount that is humanly possible under those conditions. But this behavior is not something the community should tolerate and, if possible, citizens should call us to confront the situation — not in a negative way.”
The key for many locals will be not only in response to this latest transient influx, but in how the community deals with similar instances in the future.
The issue is something being taken to heart by Julie Klein, chair of the OBMA’s Crime Prevention Committee.
”I like that people are taking an interest,” said Klein. “We’ve been talking to the police department about this for months. Where can we be the most effective? I’m real big on what we can do to prevent this kind of situation.
“What we should be addressing with these people is, if you need a place to eat, need a place to sleep, need some schooling, let’s get you the resources,” she said.