I saw my first illegal drug sale last week. In broad daylight. It took place on a downtown Redding bench outside the Yuba Street side of the historic Lorenz building.
There, seven people sat, stood or milled around the bench. They talked, laughed, smoked, ate and drank. Some people had power cords to plug cell phones and music into electrical outlets. One guy smoked a joint.
The drug deal transpired between two people: a pink-shirted short woman and a gray-shirted bearded man. The woman handed the man a cigar-shaped dusty plastic bag – like a tiny cylinder bean-bag – that contained a light grayish substance. He hugged her, handed her some bills and left.
People came and went all morning. New people joined the group, some arriving a few minutes after the most recent RABA bus drop-off. A few exchanged pills from amber-colored bottles. Cash changed hands with no attempts to conceal the activity.
According to Sam Allen, who’s operated her boutique, CAROUSEL, on the Yuba Street corner of the Lorenz building since last month, not only was what I saw common, but this was a relatively uneventful day.
Not all days are this calm, she said, but one thing’s for sure; Allen never knows what each work day will bring as she observes through her shop window a steady stream of people who arrive on foot, bike or even via wheelchair to stop and linger around the benches nearest CAROUSEL.
Even the most long-lasting lingerers eventually leave, and when they do they leave something behind: liquor bottles, needles, cigarette butts, soiled clothing, and all matter of trash and waste. Those who collect aluminum cans and plastic bottles pour the remaining contents inside the planter.
“It gets crazy,” she said. “The drugs come out, the booze comes out and I never know how the day will end. The things I see here I see every day. I don’t see it sometimes. I see it every day. I see it all day.”
Exactly what Allen sees includes drug deals, drug use and fights. There was one especially memorable three-fight day, one of which included a pair of women.
She sees police arrests and ambulance pick-ups. She sees obviously drunk and drugged and sick people. Often, when she opens her shop door in the morning, she finds her front steps sprayed with urine, and front windows splattered with thick globs of God-knows-what.
One day as she left work she encountered a drunk woman with her pants down around her legs, lying on the sidewalk with two other people, passing a bottle between them.
Another day she watched a wheelchair-regular quickly drink a 40-ounce can of beer on a 112-degree day. Allen called 911 after the intoxicated man fell from his wheelchair face-first onto the sidewalk. Allen said three police officers responded, followed by an ambulance with multiple attendants.
“It took all those people to haul him away,” Allen said. “He was back the next day. I really feel sorry for the police and emergency crews. I know they‘re frustrated, too.”
CAROUSEL, Allen’s shop, is an upscale women’s clothing boutique. It‘s a spacious retail space full of artfully arranged merchandise.
Brick walls extend to the loft-high ceilings, lending an airy, urban feel.
Some may criticize Allen for choosing downtown, saying she should have known better than to operate a business in an area populated with so many homeless and transients.
To those people she’d counter that she wanted to support downtown, and she likes older buildings. Also, she’s a seasoned downtown businesswoman, someone who’s still remembered for co-creating the original Wild Thyme garden and gift shop on Oregon Street many years ago.
And she had success with her original CAROUSEL shop, opened one year ago at California and Division streets near Cascade Paint. She remained there until she outgrew it.
When she heard that the Yuba Street space was available, she jumped at the chance to be in the center of downtown, in yet another historic building, but with more square footage.
She’d dealt with her share of quirky neighborhood characters around her former businesses, with little problem.
But nothing prepared her for what she’s encountered since she opened her doors at this new location.
“Honestly, how do you run a business with this?”
And although Allen describes herself as a compassionate person, the kind of mother who raised her children to care about the less-fortunate, and the kind of woman who’s given gift cards, food and clothing to those in need, she‘s turned a corner. She’s had enough.
“Facing this every day, it really starts to wear on your compassion,” she said.
“Little old ladies who live upstairs at the Lorenz can’t come down and sit outside because they’re too afraid. I hear grandmothers say they wouldn’t take their grandchildren to any one of Redding’s parks, because there are so many scary people there. Customers are afraid to walk to their cars. This is crazy. It has to stop.“
This reporter’s view of the drug deal and other activities was from a temporary laptop station near a window inside Allen’s boutique. I was there at Allen’s invitation to observe a sample of what occurs outside her shop on a regular basis. She’s taken to keeping a log, though sometimes things happen so quickly that she can’t write them down fast enough between customers.
Although I accepted Allen’s offer to spend the day at her shop and see what she sees, I was not her first choice.
On her opening day, she emailed Redding City Council member Francie Sullivan a description of what was happening outside her shop. Allen shared that she’d invested her life savings in CAROUSEL, and expressed her frustration about the large numbers of homeless in downtown. Allen wrote that she was willing to help find a solution. That was June 4, with the subject line, “Homeless problem.” She included a photo of the garbage-littered bench area outside her shop.
More than three weeks later, after not receiving a reply from Sullivan, Allen emailed Bosetti on June 28 with the subject line, “Homeless on the streets in Redding”. She shared examples of life outside the CAROUSEL in a longer email, sans photo. She invited him to have a cup of coffee in her shop and watch the action from her window. As with Sullivan’s email, she offered her assistance to help find solutions.
As of July 15, Allen has not heard from Bosetti or Sullivan.
Allen feels disappointed that neither Bosetti or Sullivan seemed to care enough about her plight to reply to her email.
“I just wanted them to know,” Allen said. “Politicians talk and talk, but do they really know what’s going on? I’m not so sure. I just wanted them to see what I see, and what I deal with every day downtown. This is just so frustrating. Somebody needs to open their eyes to what’s happening here.”
Aside from the sheer number of transients who loiter outside Allen’s shop, she is even more concerned about what she sees as blatant health and safety hazards.
“It’s more than just an issue about people sitting or lying on the concrete,” she said. “At some point it becomes a health issue. Cockroaches, bed bugs from old mattresses, needles, urine, vomit and everything else.”
And then there’s the larger community issue, such as when customers feel so intimidated by street people’s behavior that they fear doing business downtown, or walking to their cars alone.
Sam Allen and her CAROUSEL aren’t alone.
Nearby is an office where five women work, and where two of the women spoke on the condition their names remain unpublished.
They told how sometimes, especially in the winter, all five of the women will leave at the same time to walk together to their cars after work. They do this to avoid walking the gauntlet of people who’ve made Library Park their home. As it is, the women have grown accustomed to ignoring yelled suggestive remarks and jeers sent their way as they walk by.
The women said that like Allen’s shop, their office windows afford views of things they’d rather not see. They’ve seen people openly smoke crack. They’ve seen people high on drugs or displaying psychotic behavior. And although they do their best to avoid being too-frequent “cop-callers” – they do make exceptions, such as when a group of people chased, cornered and beat another one of the Library Park people.
Many mornings the women arrive at work to find people sleeping in their doorway. They’ve seen people nonchalantly urinate and defecate on the ground. In fact, they referred to a small outdoor area behind the former Maritime restaurant where they said it was not uncommon to see rolls of toilet paper and piles of human feces.
They said a nearby empty brick planter is often pooled with urine.
One of the business women said she hears a common comment from clients: “Your office is lovely … but it’s really scary to come here.”
The women said they realize that not all people who hang out in Library Park all day are bad, and they try to not paint them with the same brush.
“You can be homeless and still be decent,” one woman said.
That’s Allen’s philosophy, too. She spoke with affection about her former CAROUSEL location, where she befriended a motley group of colorful guys who hung out near Allen’s shop. She gave them small gifts at Christmas, and handed out Fudgsicles, Taco Bell lunches and donuts in exchange for small chores, like watering her outdoor flower planters and sweeping the sidewalks.
“I love those guys,” she said. “They’re a little rough around the edges, but they all have something to say, a story to tell. They cared about me, and I cared about them. I felt far more compassion at my other place.”
So what’s the difference between the former neighbors who were at Allen’s previous location and the ones who now hang out outside Allen’s current shop?
“Oh, a lot’s different,“ Allen said. “For one thing, this group is generally younger. They seem to have no self-respect, and no respect for the businesses or the people here, either.”
“One young woman brought a huge black plastic bag full of garbage – it looked like from a restaurant – and she just dumped it out on the sidewalk to paw through. They she left it there. These people, they congregate out there for hours, literally, with no accountability for their bad behavior at all.”
Is there a solution? Allen says yes.
She believes the first step is for elected officials to open their eyes and acknowledge the problem. She said the second step is to create some practical options.
Literally, because she’s lost so much sleep thinking about this issue, she believes she’s come up with an answer. She envisions a large space with shade, food, water, shelter and restrooms. This way, if people are banned from loitering on downtown sidewalks, they have somewhere to go.
What’s more, she even has a particular site in mind: the former Casa Blanca Motel property on North Market Street, razed for a project that fell through. The land has sat barren, dotted with dying palms, ever since. She thinks the location is perfect. It’s between downtown and the Lake Boulevard area, two common transient locations. But best of all, it’s away from downtown’s core.
There are caveats, Allen said.
“It has to be a controlled place,” Allen said. “And rules. There must be rules, and a certain amount of accountability. What I learned from my year at the other shop is that you can’t just give and give and give, because many of these people will just take and take and take. That doesn’t work. It‘s not good for anyone.”
Allen is aware that regardless of what description people use – homeless, street people, transients – collectively, these individuals are a hot subject in Redding right now, one that’s polarized the population into two extreme camps.
“What makes this an especially tough issue is the fact that most people tend to fall on one side or the other,” she said.
She said one camp consists of the bleeding-heart enablers who give too much, and defend the homeless and transients, no matter what they do. No accountability.
She said the second camp consists of the heartless haters who want the ne’er-do-wells gone yesterday. No mercy.
Allen wants a rational-but-compassionate middle-ground solution. And soon.
“At some point, something has to change,“ she said. “If nothing’s done, pretty soon the balance is going to shift to the point where even the most compassionate people will get so tired and worn down that nobody will care.”
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.