93.8 F
Friday, June 14, 2024

Ocala business owner pleads with city to clean up homeless problems in downtown

The owner of a business next to the Salvation Army in downtown Ocala says homeless individuals are regularly getting into fights, leaving their litter and used hypodermic needles on the ground, defecating on the sidewalks, and having sexual relations in retention ponds after visiting the nonprofit organization for food.

Mitchell Tucker, who operates N-Tact Security, LLC, made the comments during Tuesday’s meeting of the Ocala City Council.

“I’d like to bring up to your attention and talk to you about some problems we’re having with the homeless population on NW 1st Avenue, and more specifically, with Salvation Army,” said Tucker, referring to the Salvation Army Center of Hope, which is located at 320 NW 1st Avenue in downtown Ocala.

Tucker prefaced his comments by saying that he thinks the community is “blessed” to have organizations that are willing to help those less fortunate. He stated that he didn’t want to eliminate the Salvation Army, but rather, that he was concerned that it was being permitted to act without regard for local residents and businesses.

“I would never advocate that we do not provide those resources. I’m not even advocating that we try and relocate them,” said Tucker, who cited that goal by former Mayor Kent Guinn as an “impossible task.”

“What I am advocating for is that, if [Salvation Army] is going to be responsible for congregating the entire homeless population of a county that’s the size of Rhode Island and putting them in our city, they need to be responsible for the actions that take place because of that,” said Tucker.

Mitchell Tucker at Ocala City Council meeting
Mitchell Tucker spoke on the homeless problem near his business in downtown Ocala during Tuesday night’s meeting of the Ocala City Council. (Photo: City of Ocala)

The business owner went on to suggest that although the Salvation Army’s property was “beautiful” and “pristine,” and that, within “20 minutes” of the meal time, the homeless were kicked off the property.

“If you take one step off of their property, what you’ll see on the public sidewalk, on the public street, or on our private property is empty syringes, empty bags that once contained illegal substances, prostitution, people defecating in the street, and homeless people having extramarital affairs in the retention ponds,” said Tucker.

Tucker said he was not “exaggerating” and claimed that he sees what he described “on a weekly basis.”

“I have a 9-year-old that I take to work with me during the Summer. If you had to explain to your 9-year-old some of the things that I’ve had to explain to mine, just what he saw by driving down the road or looking out the window, you’d be infuriated,” said Tucker.

Tucker suggested that if any of the council members, many of whom are business owners themselves, were faced with the same conditions, they would be appalled.

“If you had to scrape human crap off your front porch before you even unlock the door, you’d be pretty upset,” said Tucker. “It’s a crappy way to start the day, pun intended.”

Tucker went on to clarify that he did not believe the issue was with local law enforcement, opining that the city is “blessed” to have the “two best law enforcement agencies in the state.”

“Something’s gotta be done because it’s unacceptable,” said Tucker. He suggested that if he were to throw a party seven days a week and hand out “free food and drink” to everyone in attendance, it would be unacceptable for his guests to pass out on the side of the road, fight, or throw the food on the ground.

“I’d give the city three days before they’d come knocking on my doors,” said Tucker in reference to the hypothetical. “That’s what should happen.”

“If they’re going to draw that kind of crowd there, then they need to be responsible for facilitating something, keeping them on their property, or cleaning up the trash after they’re done,” said Tucker.

The business owner went on to suggest that new hires and potential clients for his company were also being impacted.

“I had someone come in for an interview the other day, and they told me that someone was outside licking my building,” said Tucker. “Just last week, I had a very important meeting, a client was coming and said ‘Hey we’re going to be late, I apologize, I had to find a new route to your office, because apparently another homeless man got ran over in the street.'”

Ocala City Council members briefly discussed the issue a few minutes after Tucker’s comments.

Jay Musleh, who is the longest tenured member of the council, echoed Tucker’s sentiments and said he has heard similar complaints from other businesses.

“Mainstreet Bank had the same problem. Their employees were getting accosted, verbally. They felt unsafe. I’ve had numerous business owners throughout the year describe the same thing, they basically have to hose down their front porch before they can open the door,” said Musleh. He went on to suggest it was “unacceptable” and echoed Tucker’s party analogy.

“I think what [Mr. Tucker] said really hit home. You can’t throw a party seven days a week at your house and the neighbors or city’s not going to complain that people are trashing the neighborhood, passing out in the street. You couldn’t do that,” said Musleh. He reiterated that the work from the group is “wonderful,” but that the group had to “take some accountability.”

Councilmember James P. Hilty, Sr., who is also a board member of the Salvation Army, said the group was actively looking to end the food distribution program out of downtown Ocala.

“We are looking at doing away with that,” said Tucker. “That problem has been existing, not only because of those feedings, but that problem has been existing a long time.” Hilty said that a lot of the individuals are not homeless or have been trespassed from going inside the building. He suggested many start showing up to the building around 3 p.m. each day for the regular food distribution.

Mayor Ben Marciano said he believed the food distribution was not “really helping” the individuals.

“It doesn’t help. What does it really do at the end of the day? You know you’re not really helping people when you’re just giving them food,” said Marciano. “Let’s give them services that change their life, use it as a tool. People get hungry, they’ll be willing to do a lot to get themselves better.”

Councilmember Kristen Dreyer said it wasn’t fair that local business owners were having to deal with the issue.

“People from outside of the area come in and create this issue and then they go home and leave everyone in the neighborhood to deal with it, and it’s not right,” said Dreyer. “And then you have business owners who are just trying to earn a living, right? And they have to deal with this whole thing.”