July 13, 2024

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US shop owners take action as homeless camps threaten business

US shop owners take action as homeless camps threaten business

George Frem’s security cameras have seen it all: shootings, drug use, fights. Frem himself was even assaulted at his Exclusive Motors in the Mar Vista area of Los Angeles, he said.

Frem is a Lebanese-American immigrant who came to the US in the 1990s in search of the American Dream. He found it when he opened his automobile and body repair shop on Venice Boulevard across from a 405 freeway underpass.

At the time, Frem believed he’d found the perfect location to service his high-end clients on the west side of town. But that was before a homeless encampment took up residence across the street.

Now, instead of luxury vehicles, trash and approximately two dozen tents line both sides of the formerly busy thoroughfare, scaring away any hope of new business.

“Who’s going to walk in?” Frem said to The Post. “It’s not going to be a customer.”

And when a loyal regular does show up, the first thing they say is “never ‘Let’s talk about my car,’” Frem said. “Everyone walks in and talks about what’s going on outside.”

Since the encampment’s formation, Frem alleged, he has lost valuable contracts from dealerships across the city, who say they’re worried that his parking lot is no longer safe for their cars.

Frem’s employees have expressed the same fear for their own cars because of vandalism — not to mention dreading the human feces and urine they often encounter outside. It’s led some to quit, he said.

George Frem in his auto-repair shop
George Frem said he has lost valuable clients who, after seeing the homeless encampment across the street from his Los Angeles auto-repair shop, are too afraid to leave their cars parked at his business.
Mark Abramson for NY Post

With cities across America reeling from a housing crisis and the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, some 600,000 people are unhoused nationwide, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2022 annual homeless assessment.

The last three years, as an epidemic of homelessness has consumed Los Angeles, New York City, and other cosmopolitan centers across the US, each day has become a question mark for business owners like Frem and their staffs.

It’s not uncommon for homeless people to sleep outside Kenny Bowen’s East End Bar & Grill on the Upper East Side, or to panhandle at the front door during meal times.

A study by the Coalition for the Homeless reports that homelessness in the Big Apple has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s. In December 2022, there were close to 70,000 people seeking refuge in the main municipal shelter system.

Tents lined up under an underpass
Around two dozen tents line the street by Frem’s Exclusive Motors. He said some employees have quit over the human feces outside.
Mark Abramson for NY Post

For a time, there was a homeless man named Will who frequented Bowen’s restaurant so often that the owner instructed employees to bribe him with free drinks and food in order to get him to leave. Otherwise, Will would harass customers for money, alcohol or leftovers, often to the point that they’d close their tabs early.

There were also occasions when Will would take out his frustrations on the workers, threatening them with violence, rape or murder.

When Bowen called the cops, he said, each visit ended with the NYPD telling him that their hands were tied by the legal system.

“They told me that without a weapon or without an action happening, they couldn’t do anything,” Bowen, 42, explained.

Will Bowen in front of East End Bar & Grill
Kenny Bowen, who owns the East End Bar & Grill in Manhattan, said there is little police can do — even when a homeless man threatened his employees. “One day he’s in jail, the next he’s back on the streets,” Bowen said of the man.

The bar owner’s only other option was to file a restraining order against Will, which he declined to do out of fear of retaliation.

“New York has a catch and release system … One day he’s in jail, the next he’s back on the streets,” Bowen said.

Ultimately, the New Jersey father-of-two decided the best plan of action was to pick up and leave the restaurant’s location of 13 years.

Last year, Bowen reopened his sports bar at a new address on Third Avenue between 93rd and 94th Street. East End was previously located at the intersection of First Avenue and 87th Street.

Exterior of East End Bar & Grill
Bowen finally decided to move his eatery from First Avenue to Third Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Nearly 5,000 miles away, in Hilo, Hawaii, David Palmer is thinking not of moving but throwing in the towel.

The 70-year-old owns Café Pesto, a popular restaurant in an area of downtown Hilo brimming with tourists, due to its central location opposite a bus station, a farmer’s market, a park, and a beach.

The bistro draws between 400-600 customers a day — but the historic building in which it’s located is also a magnet for the homeless.

“There’s all these recessed doorways,” Palmer said. “Because of the rain, a lot of the homeless end up here… leaving bottles and drugs, and you know, paraphernalia and those things.”

David Palmer outside Café Pesto
David Palmer, who owns popular Café Pesto in Hilo, Hawaii, now hosts his last customer seating at 8 p.m. “because people, in general, feel unsafe coming to downtown Hilo at night.”
Kiana Bourne/ Kahiki Photography for NY Post

Every morning, he has a worker hose down the sidewalk in order to clean up any trash left behind overnight.

As popular as Café Pesto is, the situation has ultimately driven away customers.

“Our last seating is at 8 o’clock because people, in general, feel unsafe coming to downtown Hilo at night,” Palmer lamented, even though his landlord has a security guard perform checks throughout the day.

His place was recently featured on a Food Network show, which should have brought in a whole new stream of tourists and locals — but Palmer told The Post he felt the positive press was “negated” when diners visited and saw “homeless people out front.”

“With the visuals … there’s still too much uncertainty,” he said.

The homeless camp near Spoonz restaurant in downtown Phoenix, Arizona.
The homeless camp near Spoonz restaurant in downtown Phoenix, Arizona.
Takashi Sato for NY Post

He admitted he isn’t sure how much longer he wants to operate Café Pesto, and the neighborhood isn’t improving at the speed he’d like.

Some business owners are taking action.

In 2020, Frem and six other businesses sued the city and county of Los Angeles, in order to get them to remove encampments from the area.

Earlier this year, according to court papers filed in federal court, government officials promised the plaintiffs that they would find or create short- and/or long-term housing for more than 6,000 people, including those who lived under and next door to freeways, as well as those currently living in recreation centers and motel and hotel rooms throughout the area.

Denise Bismore outside Spoonz
Denise Bismore was surprised when a homeless panhandler accepted her offer of a dishwasher job at Spoonz, her husband’s restaurant.
Takashi Sato for NY Post

Contingent upon each shelter location obtaining county-funded support and operating services, the city said, in addition, that it would commit to creating 6,100 new shelter opportunities in the next 10 months.

The judge in the case released an order back in May 2020, citing freeway overpasses, like the one by Exclusive Motors, as unsafe and unacceptable places to live.

Media outlets celebrated Frem’s court triumph, declaring that his landmark lawsuit had reshaped the homeless crisis. But had it, really?

Despite his win in court and on paper, the encampment across from Exclusive Motors has yet to be disbanded or moved. And, to add insult to injury, two more shootings occurred there in March of this year.

John McMillan and Denise Bismore
John McMillan, the man Bismore temporarily hired, has now gotten sober and has a long-term place to live.
Takashi Sato for NY Post

On the upside, Frem pointed out: “[The encampment] cannot grow more. I don’t think there’s a place you can add a tent.”

The Post reached out to representatives for Los Angeles city and county for comment.

No matter what happens next, Frem insists he will continue to stand his ground. He has no plans to close or move his company.

“I’m not going to cower and leave,” he said.

Darren Smith outside Steven Smith Teamaker
Darren Marshall, the CEO of Steven Smith Teamaker in Portland, Oregon, said that a homeless man recently held up some of his employees as they were coming into work.
Dina Ãvila for the NY Post

After years of watching the number of homeless encampments grow around his warehouse located in southeast Portland, Oregon, Darren Marshall, the CEO of Steven Smith Teamaker, decided to secure his company’s 50,000-square-foot space by replacing the building’s punch-code door locks with a key-card system.

“We’ve had people sort of walk in and you know, look confident and then take laptops,” he said.

With 75 employees and growing, Marshall told the Post, “It became critical … for people to know who’s an employee and who’s not.”

While the new keycard system has kept Marshall’s staff safe, the reality on the streets in front of his workplace has been a different story.

George Frem inside his Exclusive Motors auto-repair shop
In 2020, Frem and six other businesses sued the city and county of Los Angeles, in order to get them to remove encampments from the area.
Mark Abramson for NY Post

Recently, a homeless man defecated in front of Smith Teamaker’s parking garage and held up some employees on their way to work. The fire department routinely swoops into the neighborhood to put out blazes from the encampments nearby.

“These are the headlines we deal with,” Marshall lamented.

Denise Bismore has tried to foster a sense of community at her husband’s SpoonZ Café in downtown Phoenix, Arizona, where there are thousands of homeless living on the streets, by hiring John McMillan, a man who had panhandled by the restaurant for years.

She admitted she was somewhat surprised when he accepted the temporary dishwasher position. The job ended last fall.

Homeless tent camp across from Exclusive Motors in Los Angeles
Despite his win in court and on paper, the encampment across from Exclusive Motors has yet to be disbanded or moved. And, to add insult to injury, two shootings occurred there in March.
Mark Abramson for NY Post

“Some of these folks don’t want to get help but there are those that do,” said Bismore, who noted that the man has been able to get sober and into long-term housing. “You never know.”

Palmer said of some of the homeless people who stay near his restaurant, “It’s their territory and they kind of keep others at bay.”

In September, one of his employees teamed up with a homeless man to save a teenager’s life.

A Café Pesto busboy recognized the girl, who came in with an older man, from an Amber Alert. The employee managed to get the girl away from her abductor while the homeless man took down the kidnapper’s license plate number — leading to an arrest.

David Palmer at the bar in Café Pesto
Palmer also explained how a homeless man teamed up with a Café Pesto employee to help save a girl wanted in an Amber Alert.
Kiana Bourne/ Kahiki Photography for NY Post

“They are not a homogenous group,” Palmer said of the homeless population. He has encountered people from a wide range of situations: from those who have lost their jobs, to those who experience ongoing mental issues and/or drug addiction, and those who have gone through an expensive health crisis and simply can’t afford to pay for a roof over their heads.

“Unfortunately, I think there needs to be forced mental health services,” he added.

“There’s a there’s a lot of people that are offered a shelter, but if the shelter says, ‘Well,
you have to be drug-free,’ they say never mind.”