Two benches have been removed from Prospect Street downtown by the manager of a store fed up with homeless people offending passersby on the sidewalk.
According to the manager — who declined to be identified, photographed or directly quoted for this story for fear of reprisal — the move was a last-resort response to two specific homeless people who have used the benches to aggressively panhandle, to yell at uncomfortable volumes and, once in recent memory, to defecate.
The Light was shown the backless wooden benches but asked not to photograph them. They are dismantled and in storage at the rear of the property. The manager claimed they are the property of the owner of the building (which includes the commercial space next door) who purchased and installed them around 1990.
New La Jolla Village Merchants Association (LJVMA) president Alisha Hawrylyszyn Frank said only that “we are aware that the benches were removed,” that “these benches are the responsibility of the La Jolla Village Merchants Association” and that “we are working with those involved toward a reasonable solution.”
Even if the benches weren’t owned by this property owner, however, downtown merchants have the right to do “whatever it is they wish with the street furniture in front of their place,” according to former La Jolla Town Council president Darcy Ashley — as long as they notify the LJVMA prior to the activity.
Most Prospect Street benches belong to the LJVMA, Ashley said, since they were placed via private donations coordinated by Promote La Jolla, the non-profit merchants association predating the LJVMA. They were the passion project of the late Esther Viti, who voluntarily coordinated with donors to have them installed for Promote La Jolla in the late ‘90s. (A bench was dedicated to Viti — known by many as La Jolla’s “hat lady” — by Promote La Jolla near the former Brooks Brothers store at 1055 Wall St.)
Up to three years ago, Ashley said, any merchant with a request to relocate a bench would have contacted LJVMA and been put in touch with Viti’s successor, Margie McNair. However, since McNair stopped volunteering, no one has been in charge.
“So it’s been up to the landowners and store-owners to sort it out,” Ashley said.
According to Ashley, the only requirements of merchants wishing to remove or relocate a bench are to notify LJVMA, to remove all anchoring material, so that no tripping hazard exists, and to return the bench and any memorial plaques (offered over the years to donors who helped restore older benches) to their donors if the bench is not relocated. (There were no plaques affixed to the two benches in storage.)
The Light spoke to one of the homeless people whose behavior was cited by the manager as prompting the move. The man denied engaging in any inappropriate behavior and said that he is taking up a collection, from other homeless people, to raise $500 to buy a replacement bench and place it in front of the store themselves. (Initially, the homeless man said, he intended to gather his friends and stage a protest, but he changed his mind after “people who know” told him “there would be consequences” for such an action.)
The homeless man also refused to identify himself or be photographed, claiming that every homeless person written about by the Light in the past year has been arrested “because the higher-ups in La Jolla prefer us to stay invisible.”
Providing opportunities for tourists to sit in the heavily trafficked area of Prospect Street and Girard Avenue, without encouraging homeless to displace them, is a balancing act dating back at least 10 years. In 2008, Viti went as far as seeking volunteers to bench-sit in three-hour shifts to send a message to homeless people that they were not welcome. (The idea was never implemented.)
“I just try to encourage them to move along,” said Gerhard Bendl, owner of Bendl’s Custom Shirts of Lajolla at 7872 Girard Ave., which has a bench on its sidewalk.
“It’s just very sad,” Bendl said. “There’s one gentleman in his mid-thirties who hangs around here who needs a lot of help. And I do try to help them out. There was this guy walking around with his shoes wrapped in cellophane. So I approached him with a pair of tennis shoes and offered them to him.”
The homeless man’s response, according to Bendl, was “Oh no, I don’t wear those.”