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Lodi business owners upset about homeless residents at Lawrence Park

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Posted: Tuesday, October 8, 2013 12:00 am

From her desk, which faces Lawrence Park, Sally Beckman says she can see drug deals go down. Her employees have found needles near the playground structure. Last year, she even watched a man get stabbed, she said.

“I would not let my grandchildren go over there,” said Beckman, the manager of a business located near the park. “Kids can’t go play there. I don’t know if (the homeless) would harm them in any way. But I would not want my children to see that type of drug use.”

Owners of nearby businesses all agree that there is a problem at Lawrence Park.

Homeless people flock to the area, sometimes dozens at a time, at all hours of the day and night. Business owners say that the large influx has produced frequent fights, drug use, prostitution, litter and an overall unwelcoming scene for families hoping to enjoy the Eastside Lodi neighborhood’s park.

Police and city officials acknowledge an issue exists, but say only a limited number of solutions are available.

Local business owners, though, want the city to take back its park.

“I feel bad for anybody trying to use that park for what it’s meant for,” said Mark Armstrong, general manager of the Lodi Grape Festival. “It’s really a scourge that’s taken away from the niceness of that park.”

Armstrong has worked at the Grape Festival Grounds for 21 years, but he said the homeless situation has become drastically worse during the last five years.

He often deals with vandalism, trespassing, littering and even theft, he said.

Recently, while preparing for a wine show, Armstrong spotted a homeless man whom he sees regularly at Lawrence Park jump the fence and attempt to escape with two cases of wine.

Armstrong called the police and the man was arrested, he said.

“For me, it’s a very, very frustrating deal,” Armstrong said. “Every time I go over there, I notice how bad it looks. That’s our neighborhood, and it’s really gotten on my nerves.”

Lawrence Park has long been a frequent stop for officers.

Lodi Police Lt. Sierra Brucia said officers often respond to the park for reports of public intoxication, littering, loitering, prostitution, drug use and animals off their leashes.

“We’re pretty aware that a lot of the transients spend a lot of time at Lawrence Park,” he said.

The problems, though, are so severe that some city officials believe the park isn’t safe.

“I wouldn’t have my kids play there, most likely,” said Jeff Hood, director of Lodi’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services. “Some days it’s fine, and some days it’s not fine.”

The city has taken recent steps to clean up the area: Several picnic tables have been removed. Officers have prevented people from sleeping there overnight.

The Lodi Police Department also works with local churches, shelters and mental health professionals to address not just the criminal issues surrounding homelessness, but also the social issues.

“Like anything, if you continue to address it, you’re going to have better success,” Brucia said.

However, he added, the police can only do so much. If people are not breaking the law, they have a right to be at the park.

Hood added that even if the city could force them out, they would simply find another park to frequent.

But business owners are frustrated with homeless people disturbing customers and damaging their property.

Beckman has been forced the cover the exterior electrical outlets on her building, she said, because people would plug in their razors and shave outside. She has installed a fence around her property to prevent people from trespassing, starting fires in her dumpsters and even defecating near the building.

Solving the problem at Lawrence Park requires providing a new place for the homeless to congregate, said Kevin Harcourt, founder of Project Love, a faith-based program that offers food and services to homeless people at churches in Galt.

“The best way to serve them would be at our own home,” Harcourt said. “We need to take our parks back. Those are for our kids.”

Once or twice each week, volunteers from local churches use Lawrence Park as a site to distribute food. On those days, upwards of 50 homeless people may arrive for a meal.

To prevent that scene at parks in Galt, Harcourt encouraged local churches to instead invite the homeless to their sites for meals. At the churches, Project Love also offers haircuts, showers, clothes and other services.

“There is enabling going on,” Harcourt said. “If every four hours you’re receiving food at the park, you have no incentive to change.”

Harcourt added that he’s in the process of bringing his organization to Lodi, which he said has a more severe homeless problem than Galt.

“We really don’t have the problem like we do in Lodi,” he said. “It’s really a different situation there.”

Tom, who declined to provide his last name, has been homeless for 15 years and said Lawrence Park is the only park he frequents in Lodi.

“We’re tolerated here and unwanted elsewhere,” he said.

He said that one group typically spends time at the park, and they try to police themselves as well as other homeless people who spend time there.

But it’s a few bad apples that create a bad name for all the homeless people, he said.

He and friends usually play cards or dominoes, and he believes that it’s the only park in Lodi where volunteers distribute meals.

Tom says he wouldn’t take a chance at some other parks in Lodi.

“At some of the other parks, like Hale Park, you go over there at dark and you’re liable to get shot,” Tom said.

Contact reporter Kristopher Anderson at krisa@lodinews.com.

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