Rich Major knew he was taking a gamble when, back in 2006, he and his business partners began investing in a handful of properties in the Central Business District and Downtown East, eventually acquiring a pair of buildings on Main Street and North Street that currently house Providence Engineering and tech startup Enginuity Global, respectively.
But, Major, then a managing member of Providence Engineering, took his chances, wagering the infusion of financing his firm would bring into the city’s core would turn things around, making the area safer. It didn’t, and it’s costing him.
Among sights his building occupants might see: A man urinating in the glass window of the Providence Building, women soliciting prostitution on the street and multiple break-ins of neighboring buildings. All appear to be symptoms of a rise in Baton Rouge’s new homeless population—which has surged 43% since January, according to the Louisiana Balance of State Continuum of Care.
His tenants, fearing their safety, are taking note. To keep the 125 Providence Engineering employees in the Main Street space for another 28 months, Major had to cut the firm’s lease by roughly 25%. He wasn’t as lucky with Engenuity Global; the tech company is moving out Dec. 1, bringing its 20 jobs to the Sherwood Forest area.
“My investments are deteriorating significantly,” Major says. “All the business owners here are going, ‘We need to do something.’ We’ve tried before, but it’s getting worse.”
Major’s sentiment echoes those of dozens of other downtown business and property owners who have been quietly meeting with the Baton Rouge Police Department and Mayor Sharon Weston Broome’s office over the past month, aiming to shed new light on—and ideally, solve—the area’s visibly growing homelessness, as well as one of its more business-averse side effects: aggressive panhandling, a longtime issue many complain is intensifying.
While the two are distinct, homelessness and panhandling are often linked, with the former usually triggering the latter. However, for the local business community, there’s a key difference: Empathy and compassion still largely exist for people experiencing homelessness, but panhandlers are bringing them to their wit’s end.
“I have a real heart for these people, but they have to follow the rules,” says Chris Nichols, a retired social services worker who co-owns two downtown buildings. “We need more housing, but we also need to quit handing money out at the exits.”
Though arguably most concentrated downtown, panhandling is pervasive throughout Baton Rouge. Solicitors often approach patrons in the parking lots of big-box retailers along College Drive, Bluebonnet Boulevard, Essen Lane, Government Street, Siegen Lane and other heavily trafficked thoroughfares. Drivers divert eye contact from sign-bearing strangers asking for gas or food money near the exit- and on-ramps of Interstate 10 throughout the city.
Set against the backdrop of a national homelessness crisis, it’s hardly a surprising picture. At first glance, mid-sized Baton Rouge might even seem unmarred by the national trend, especially when compared to larger metropolises like San Francisco, where aggressive panhandling has reached something of a boiling point.
Still, there is data suggesting panhandling is on the rise here over the past decade. In the year between Sept. 23, 2008-2009, public records show 11 people were arrested for violating City-Parish Ordinance 11:96, which prohibits pedestrians from “soliciting rides, business, employment or contributions of a charitable nature” under certain circumstances. Within the year leading up to Sept. 23, 2019, the number of arrests rose to 19—a roughly 53% increase.
That’s only one measure, and a small one. Panhandlers could also be arrested for trespassing, disturbing the peace, harassment or another charge not limited solely to people soliciting money. Or, as is often the case, a minor disturbance could be resolved without any arrests made. Consequently, it’s difficult to illustrate the true scope of the problem here, aside from a trove of anecdotes and observations.
From all these accounts, a common thread emerges: Much is at stake for Baton Rouge’s economy, from the larger industries—such as tourism and real estate, which are particularly vulnerable to outsiders’ negative perceptions of the city—down to the smaller mom-and-pop retailers, who rely heavily on foot traffic from locals who presumably feel safe walking the streets.
“It’s a sad picture for the community as we try to market Baton Rouge as a great place to live and work,” says Jonathan Walker of Maestri-Murrell Commercial Real Estate, whose Siegen Lane shopping center tenants sometimes wake up vagrants sleeping outside their stores. “It creates a black eye on our city.”
City-parish officials say multiple efforts are underway to mitigate homelessness, with some more recent initiatives focused on panhandling as well. Yet with it still happening and their livelihoods on the line, many of Baton Rouge’s business and property owners are stepping up to tackle the issues themselves.
The cost of vagrancy
From brick-and-mortar retailers to petrochemical plants, virtually no establishment is immune to the detrimental side effects of panhandling on business, according to many of the real estate brokers and agents representing those companies.
For starters, visible panhandling can taint an outside company’s perception of a place, potentially deterring them from investing in multimillion-dollar deals there. That’s why commercial broker Grey Hammett Jr. takes his out-of-state industrial clients down longer routes to the Baton Rouge Industriplex when he’s trying to convince them to open a Baton Rouge satellite location, circumnavigating panhandlers who near his car at different intersections.
While he can’t point to a specific deal that fell through because of panhandling per se, Hammett says a vagrancy issue is what likely cost him the sale of a Greenwell Springs property to an interested out-of-town distributor, who saw on his site tour people living in half of the 50,000-square-foot former Winn-Dixie space, where the windows had been smashed out.
“You almost have to apologize for them,” Hammett says. “It’s definitely a negative on the industrial sector, which is the majority of my practice.”
Aggressive panhandling can sometimes lead to crimes like vagrancy and vandalism, potentially costing retailers thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses for repairs. That isn’t limited to vacant space, either; it’s an “epidemic,” says Carmen Austin of Saurage Rotenberg Commercial Real Estate, that has also occurred in 95% occupied, Class A office space in parts of town generally deemed safe.
“Maybe we’re not San Francisco, but there’s no doubt we have a serious problem on our hands,” says Mark Hebert of Kurz & Hebert Commercial Real Estate, who has called the police on vagrants refusing to leave his shopping centers on Perkins and Essen, as well as Lee and Nicholson drives, and Jones Creek Road and Coursey Boulevard.
“You almost have to apologize for (the panhandlers). It’s definitely a negative on the industrial sector, which is the majority of my practice.”
GREY HAMMETT JR., broker, Grey Hammett Commercial Real Estate
Other leasing agents, however, don’t see the issues as common or dangerous enough to warrant significant concern, saying they haven’t lost any tenants or noticed any other tangible effects from them.
Dottie Tarleton of Stirling Properties says she hasn’t seen the panhandling, vagrancy or vandalism as a noticeable problem at any of her centers. Nor has Charlie Colvin of Momentum Commercial Real Estate, adding it doesn’t tend to pop up at the newer commercial centers he represents.
Some also say it doesn’t have to be an issue, noting businesspeople can always connect people loitering on their properties to the right services. Lynn Daigle of NAI Latter & Blum, for instance, says some of her Government Street property tenants—concerned about a woman with a mental illness who tries to sleep in a shared courtyard near their businesses—have gotten the woman the medication she needs.
“My perspective on it is, we’re in a city … this is part of the growing pains,” she says. “Calling the cops on people isn’t the only option.”
Not all panhandlers are homeless, though. Jordan Piazza, who owns Phil’s Oyster Bar downtown and Uncle Earl’s in Southdowns, says some locals, watching from afar, send their children into Phil’s with boxes to ask people for money to buy candy. Clean-cut individuals have also come into Uncle Earl’s, he says, telling patrons compelling stories before Piazza escorts them out.
Though he’s seldom had to call the police on them, it’s made Piazza rethink the way he handles security at his businesses. He says he once contemplated chipping in for security detail with a group of other nearby businesses, but shelved those plans because panhandling wasn’t a consistent enough problem at the time.
“You’re stuck dealing with it on your own,” says Piazza, “and you have to pray it doesn’t get ugly.”
On a macro level, the threat of aggressive panhandling could cost Baton Rouge visits from tourists—along with the money they spend at hotels, restaurants, shops and other local businesses, says Paul Arrigo, president and CEO of Visit Baton Rouge. Last year, a record 11.3 million tourists spent $958 million in Baton Rouge.
“Any time a security issue happens with a tourist,” says Arrigo, “it becomes more than local news.”
While too early to determine whether panhandling has had any effect on recent tourism numbers, Arrigo says his agency is closely monitoring the issue, having heard concerns from multiple hotels throughout the city, where some patrons are harassed by panhandlers just outside the building.
The business response
Businesses across the country are addressing the homelessness crisis in various ways. A Seattle initiative called “The Pledge,” for instance, links homeless customers with charitable businesses, which most commonly offer them free water, device charging and restrooms.
On the other hand, California—home to four of the five U.S. cities with the highest concentrations of homelessness—is exploring more punitive solutions, with retailers using public-private “business improvement districts” to pass anti-panhandling laws “aimed at driving homeless people out of their districts,” according to a 2018 study conducted by Berkeley Law’s Policy Advocacy Clinic.
Somewhere in between appears to be the approach fostered by the Downtown Development District of Baton Rouge, which has increased BRPD’s presence at downtown events and is adding more lighting, among other security measures, says DDD Executive Director Davis Rhorer.
But, also as the site of multiple service providers for the homeless, the DDD is partnering with groups like the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless and St. Vincent de Paul to educate the public about pointing panhandlers to available services instead giving them cash, in addition to other best practices for dealing with aggressive panhandling.
Currently, community policing is the route Spanish Town and Beauregard Town residents are taking, with Google Groups active for those neighborhoods and one in the works for the CBD.
“It’s about being eyes and ears on the street—and that’s one thing downtown is great about,” Rhorer says.
Long-term, Rhorer says he will advocate for the service providers to expand their hours of operation and staffing—a dire need, business owners say. But shelters can’t house everyone. Capacity aside, St. Vincent de Paul doesn’t let in people currently addicted to drugs, while some others living on the street don’t want to stay in their shelter, says President and CEO Michael Acaldo.
Still, Acaldo says he wants to work with the business community to identify possible solutions. Its support matters a great deal to the nonprofit, he adds, noting many large companies in Baton Rouge—including Turner Industries, ExxonMobil, Neighbors Federal Credit Union, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana and several law firms, to name a few—donate money and time to their mission.
“If you take that away from us,” says Acaldo, “you close our doors.”
In the meantime, city-parish officials are targeting to what they say is the root of the panhandling problem: Homelessness.
Reasons for the spike in Baton Rouge’s new homeless population—a mix of individuals experiencing short-term to long-term homelessness—remain uncertain. Generally speaking, however, drivers of homelessness include substance abuse, mental illness, lack of affordable housing, job loss, post-traumatic stress among military veterans and domestic violence, among other factors.
There are also rumors of homeless people being bussed to Baton Rouge from other cities and dropped off downtown. Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Rowdy Gaudet says the city-parish is looking into these allegations, but doesn’t have solid data to know if the rumors are true.
Broome says her team is working on some “creative strategies to address panhandling and public space management,” such as reviewing existing ordinances.
“It’s controllable if we get a grip on it right now,” Broome says, adding her office is collaborating with law enforcement to figure out best practices for addressing the issue in an aggressive, yet ethical and compassionate way.
Among ongoing initiatives:
• A pilot homelessness diversion program with the East Baton Rouge Continuum of Care, slated to launch in early 2020, intended to prevent homelessness and/or return someone to housing within the first 30 days of experiencing homelessness.
• Offering more regular outreach to known homeless encampments.
• Receiving a daily count of availability at shelters from providers, and giving that information to BRPD officers so they can transport, when able, a citizen experiencing homelessness to a community shelter.
• Awarding more than $1 million to St. Vincent de Paul in 2018 to expand its homeless shelter capacity by 36 new beds, anticipated to open in the summer of 2020.
• Connecting homelessness service providers with the East Baton Rouge EmployBR Program, which focuses on workforce development of residents who are in need.
Businesses are also awaiting the March opening of the Bridge Center for Hope—the long-planned mental health diversion facility East Baton Rouge Parish voters agreed to fund last year—as a possible solution for people with mental illnesses who are seeking shelter.
Many in the business community remain skeptical toward these initiatives, but say that, hopefully by beginning the conversation, change will come.
“We see our role as a convener, so it’s time to marry up all of our resources,” Gaudet says. “It takes a village.”