Hours after the Oakdale City Council on Monday night, Feb. 4 approved Police Chief Lester Jenkins’ recommendation to remove the downtown benches in an effort to combat loitering by vagrants, city crews were out on North Third Avenue Tuesday morning unbolting and hauling away the benches for “refurbishing.” With the benches now gone, downtown merchants await to see if the result is positive.
The situation with the homeless had boiled over, officials said, with repeated complaints of littering, public drinking, harassment, and fighting.
Leslie Ozbirn of Valley Oak School of Dance has had problems with her students being harassed and drunk individuals following her. At one point, Ozbirn stated a disagreement with one of the individuals resulted in an intoxicated man urinating on her glass doors in front of her after she had to lock herself in her business for her safety.
Parents of children at the dance studio are now active in watching the parking lot and surrounding area when classes are in session.
Jim Postma of Café Bliss has had similar problems with disturbances and the individuals, who are non-patrons, using and leaving his bathroom facilities a mess.
“If they use it and leave it like they found it, it wouldn’t be a problem,” said Postma.
Chief Jenkins has promised a swift response by his department when problems occur or are brewing. The police department is hamstrung, however, by an overloaded district attorney’s office that views these arrests as nuisance more than prosecutable offenses.
Other merchants reported that the garbage problem is getting worse, to the point where shop owners have to clean it on a daily basis.
Several merchants when interviewed after the meeting complained of the heap of garbage thrown from trash containers as result of after hour scavenger activities. Unfortunately, the bench removal may not curtail the attraction of Dumpster diving.
Linda Ellenwood of Kelly’s Treasure Hunt agreed that the trash in the mornings was a problem. She also said that she has seen the gatherings at the benches and believes the homeless individuals were the only ones using them.
“They do sit over there and drink,” said Ellenwood. “It’s scary and sad; they’re unkempt and look frightening. I don’t think removing the benches will fix everything.”
Rachel Jones of Touchdown Realty said the problem has become so repulsive that individuals have defecated in the parking lot behind her business.
Jones said at times she’s had to lock the business door since there was a bench positioned in front of the office.
Rick Jones of Touchdown Realty added that it was important for his employees to feel safe and he didn’t feel it could happen with the loitering, drinking, and commotion caused from those gathering.
The merchants contacted were very complimentary to Mayor Pat Paul and Chief Jenkins for keeping in touch with them about the problem.
With the removal of the downtown benches, it appears the wanderers have drifted south to the benches at the Bianchi Community Center and adjacent to the library.
Reports have come in of the same issues seen downtown, with intoxicated subjects laying on the benches at all hours of the day, loudness and arbitrary yelling, and human waste in the walkway between the community center and Third Avenue sidewalk.
William Meyer Park with its tables and benches has also become the new hangout for the displaced downtown vagrants
What the City of Oakdale describes as a park “…created to provide quiet, shady areas for shoppers and senior citizens that may want to rest, read, have lunch, or play table games” has now been taken over by eight to 10 regulars.
The city is studying the homeless problem and is studying ways to deal with the homeless problem including looking for a community organization to assist.