'Not a welcoming sight': Under the Daytona pier, homeless and tourists now must co-exist
DAYTONA BEACH — If Norman Rockwell were painting an iconic summer day on the World’s Most Famous Beach, the scene might look something like this:
Tanned 20-somethings toss Frisbees on a sunny weekday afternoon, as families nearby unfold lawn chairs and beach blankets within range of the welcome shade cast from the historic Daytona Beach pier.
This summer, however, the nostalgic scene has been altered by the incongruous presence of homeless people who have migrated to the same hospitable patches of sand beneath the famous pier, an unavoidable reminder of a complicated 21st-century problem not so easily painted over.
“Monday under the pier is pretty much one of the quieter days,” said Brian Moore, 46, an Alabama native who has been homeless in Florida for about five years. Under the pier, he and a friend, Douglas Higgins, 57, were doing what most beach goers do: stretching out on the sand, sipping on a cold fountain drink, people-watching.
“This is my heaven,” said Moore, considering the beach’s potential for wide open fun. “I don’t feel no pressure out here. I just chill out, hang out. If you want to come out and relax, this is the spot.”
The homeless migration to the sands beneath the pier became more pronounced in June, after the city began imposing new rules along the Boardwalk and at nearby Breakers Oceanfront Park that ban everything from loitering near restrooms to obstructing public walkways. Pushed from those heavily traveled tourist areas, the drifters and vagrants headed to the beach.
[READ: Pushed from parks, homeless end up under Daytona’s pier]
On two recent visits, the nearly two dozen homeless beneath the pier were easily distinguished from tourists. Many were unshaven, clad in dirty cut-off shorts, sandals or worn-out canvas sneakers. Some were hanging out wet towels and laundry on makeshift clotheslines strung between the pier’s wooden pilings. A few dilapidated bicycles waited nearby.
“Live and let live” was the prevailing attitude among many of the tourists and homeless alike.
“I definitely noticed them, but they don’t bother anybody,” said Kyle Rolland, 20, who had arrived early last week with four friends from Liberty, N.Y., a small town about two hours outside New York City. “They maybe ask for a cigarette. They live their life; we live our life.”
Rolland, who worked as a restaurant line cook in New York, is considering staying in Daytona Beach if he can find work. He was impressed with the respect he has seen most residents display toward the homeless here, compared with how they are treated in New York City.
“I haven’t seen them being treated any differently than we’ve been treated, but I’m sure it happens,” Rolland said. “If we run out of money, we’ll probably be sleeping under a pier, like them.”
‘Not a welcoming sight’
The reaction to a homeless camp under the pier was less positive from Mark Auchtung, 47, a software developer from St. Petersburg.
“We walked down there because the shade looked inviting,” said Auchtung, out on an afternoon bike ride with friend Jayce Alfonzo, 36, of Orlando. ”Then we saw all the homeless people and realized that was not really the spot we’d want to hang out for the day. It’s not a welcoming sight.”
For the wandering homeless, such as Brian Moore, the beach and shade of the pier are major upgrades, complete with entertainment.
“Yesterday, they had a big surfing competition out here,” Moore said. “They had a good crowd out here yesterday. On the weekends, they have concerts at the Bandshell, so we walk down there and then there’s a fireworks show. I pull my blanket out on the beach and watch the fireworks.
“After the fireworks, it’s time to go to sleep,” Moore said, laughing. “Man, you come out here on a weekend and you could write a book.”
On a recent Friday, the scene beneath the pier was much the same, as Moore and his friends divided bread, peanut butter, jelly and lunch meats they had received from an area church into midday meals. For the homeless, weekly routines revolve around a rotating distribution schedule of food and supplies by area churches and charitable agencies. With a full belly, it’s on to other diversions.
“They’ve got Motown tonight at the Bandshell,” Moore said. “I’ll be there if it’s not raining.”
Underneath the coquina archway that leads to the beach, the attitude isn’t as sunny. There, a cluster of roughly a dozen homeless forms an intimidating gauntlet, characterized by bursts of loud expletives or profane gestures. Outsiders are greeted with sharply cynical stares.
“We’re one big dysfunctional family down here, because nobody has any idea,” said Shawn D., 44, who asked that his last name be withheld to avoid potential retaliation by law enforcement. He fights away tears as he talks about volunteering to distribute food that morning at an area church, helping to feed more than 200 people. “We try to help each other. They want to put us out in a shelter by I-95, with no buses. No jobs out there. It’s like a zoo, with bears. These cops hate us. We have nobody to talk to out here.”
Next to him, Joshua Richardson, 33, gently corrals a tiny cream-colored kitten, Jordan. A Baltimore native, Richardson has lived for more than 20 years in Daytona Beach, but just recently became homeless when he lost his telemarketing job.
“The cops are mean to us,” Richardson said softly. “Sometimes, the church will even turn us away.”
Because the homeless crowd is allowed on the beach only from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Moore and others must find other places to sleep, but it’s a minor issue, he said. “On the beach, there’s 15 hours of your day, right there.”
Volusia County Beach Safety Ocean Rescue generally leaves the homeless alone, Moore said, though the potential for jail time isn’t much of a deterrent.
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“If they put me in jail for a night, they’re doing me a favor,” he said. “I go get a shower, get a few meals.”
[READ: Daytona enforcing new park rules; dozens arrested]
Although weekend activities might be welcome entertainment for those under the pier, the homeless enclave already has caused extra headaches for public safety officials, said Capt. Tammy Malphurs of Volusia County Beach Safety Ocean Rescue.
“On Sunday, we had to respond to a fight (under the pier), a report of someone assaulting someone else with broken beer bottle,” Malphurs said. “We found a very irate woman who had assaulted a man, but we couldn’t find the beer bottle. We had to Baker Act her because she obviously had some mental health issues.
“We received a lot of complaints that day because the surf contest was going on,” Malphurs said. “There were mainly children competing and they were going under the pier, so they witnessed that. I’m not sure what the solution is, or when we will find the solution or what’s going to happen.”
County records show an increase in calls for service from beach safety personnel in the pier area in July, compared with the previous month, including a jump to nine alcohol-related calls compared with one in June. There were five calls in July for illegal camping, compared with three in the previous month.
“The county and its beach safety and coastal division work hard to keep the beach clean and safe and we understand the implications of having a homeless element in such a high-profile area,” said Joanne Magley, county spokeswoman. “The property directly under the pier is owned by the city of Daytona Beach, so they need to be part of the solution.
“The Volusia County Council is very committed to helping those who are homeless,” Magley said by email, pointing out financial commitments of $4.5 million to the city for the First Step shelter, $3.5 million for construction costs for Hope Place and more than $1 million to DeLand for its homeless shelter. The council also committed to helping with operation costs for all three facilities.
“All told, the County Council has committed more than $12.25 million to help fund the three homeless shelters over the next five years,” Magley said.
‘Some tough choices’
Visitor reaction to the homeless beneath the pier hasn’t yet reached the Daytona Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, the agency that uses county bed-tax funds to promote area tourism.
“We haven’t heard anything yet about the homeless movement to under the pier,” Lori Campbell Baker, CVB executive director, said by email, “but we’ll keep an eye out.”
At the nearby 744-room Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfront Resort, the area’s largest hotel, moving the homeless to the beach and beneath the pier has actually lessened the number of complaints that the hotel has received from guests about vagrants, said Jim Berkley, the hotel’s general manager.
“We certainly support the city’s efforts to present the Boardwalk in its best light,” Berkley said by email. “There has been a measurable reduction recently of negative feedback from our guests voiced both in person and on social media.”
When it comes to homeless under the pier, Berkley added that “everyone has the entitlement to enjoy our beaches provided we all follow the fundamental rules of respect of others around us and their right to enjoy the same.”
Other business owners had opinions about the summer homeless migration.
“The city needs to follow the direction of the city of St. Augustine,” said Dino Paspalakis, co-owner of the Mardi Gras Fun Center on the Boardwalk. “That ordinance has been upheld in court and it restricts panhandling from within parks and around area business. That’s what we should be looking at here.”
On Wednesday, Daytona Beach city commissioners voted unanimously to crack down on people who violate city or state laws while on the city’s property.
The commission approved a new ordinance that allows the city manager and Daytona Beach police officers to issue a trespass warning to anyone who violates any city ordinance, rule or regulation as well as state laws while in a city facility, building or outdoor area. That includes city parks, but excludes sidewalks, streets and public right-of-way property.
[READ: Daytona commissioners OK trespass, foreclosure measures]
On the first violation, the trespass warning for lawbreakers on city property could be for up to one year. A second or subsequent violation could result in the person being issued a trespass warning for up to two years.
Lawbreakers who come back to the city property they’re cited on before their ban expires can be arrested for trespassing.
For John Louizes, owner of Zeno’s Boardwalk Sweet Shop, a fixture on Main Street since 1948, law enforcement presence is a key part of creating a safe, welcoming environment on the Boardwalk. Louizes has teamed with two other business owners in recent years to hire extra patrols to increase customer security.
“Business is still great down there, both at the candy shop and my parents’ gift shop next door,” Louizes said. “Wherever there’s going to be a mass of population, a lot of people with money or a lot of tourists, there’s a good chance that you might have homeless people or others asking for money.”
Gary Koliopulos, owner of souvenir and beachwear shop Beach Express on South Atlantic Avenue, has been a beachside presence for more than 30 years. He has empathy for the homeless but also is realistic about what they can cost a tourist destination.
“You can’t spend millions and millions in redevelopment and marketing on the beachside and have your customers accosted by homeless people at the same time,” Koliopulos said. “It calls for some tough choices. We all want to be politically correct, but would you want to take your family somewhere like that? The realistic answer is, ‘No.’”