Businesses upset as downtown becomes public restroom

·5 min read

Jul. 16—For the last 15 years since taking over Big Valley Abrahamson Printing, owner June Aaker has always had problems with passersby or homeless using the front of her Pine Street business as a place to sleep or to relieve themselves.

Aaker said the amount and frequency of incidents have always been "hit or miss," and it always takes her about an hour to clean up whatever mess is left behind.

But last Monday morning, she was hit by the overwhelming smell of urine as she arrived to open up for business.

"The stench was ungodly," Aaker said. "That's the only way I know how to describe it."

Wanting to know who or what could have created such an unpleasant smell, Aaker asked a neighbor whose security camera looks down at her front door if she could view the footage from the entire weekend.

It took about an hour, but Aaker was able to determine the culprit: eight men who appeared to be coming from School Street, most likely from one of the three bars within a one-block radius of her shop.

"There was one person Friday, two people Sunday, and the rest of them all on Saturday night," she said. "Saturday must be really popular in downtown."

In 2006, Aaker put a gate at the top of the stairs that lead down to her front door as a way to deter people from camping and defecating there. While the defecating stopped, the urination increased.

However, she said she could go months without anything happening outside her door.

"While watching the footage, it got to the point where I was getting madder and madder," she said. "But then I thought, 'why am I mad?' It really got to the point where I was more concerned about what kind of society we've become where people think it's okay to do something like that and not think of others' properties."

Aaker said she used to think it was homeless individuals leaving feces, dried urine and debris at her front door. As she watched the video footage revealing the culprits, she said she realized not one of them were homeless.

"It was people just like you and me," she said. "It was shocking."

Other businesses in the area have also had issues with bodily fluids and trash left on their doorstep.

Raquel Paler's parents own Angelo's Restaurant on the corner of School and Elm streets, and said there have been mornings at least once a month where their large flower pots outside have been broken.

They've even found feces inside the gated area at the front door, and have had to clean the entryway every morning due to the smell of urine.

"I was like, that's not cool, you know," she said. "I don't know if it's from drinking, or homelessness downtown. We've been here 27 years, and it's only happened recently, like within the last year. I don't know if it's the pandemic or people have nothing better to do."

Amanda and Jim Heuer own Secondhand Rose in Downtown, and said they've found vomit in the front and rear of their building, as well as pools of dried urine on the corners and on power boxes.

Many times, they said, the cabin filters of their car will smell like urine when they turn on the air conditioning because people will relieve themselves right next to the vehicle.

"You can see the front of the building by the doors. We cleaned them last weekend but everything starts collecting dirt and dust," Jim Heuer said. "Then you can see where they are puking and peeing, because it starts turning black where they're doing it. So then we've got to bring a bucket."

The couple said the problem has escalated over the years, and the culprits have been a mix of homeless and bar hoppers.

Amanda Heuer said it's a huge problem the city has not been addressing.

"Underneath (the store's front overhang) we installed lights to try to keep them out from underneath it, but it doesn't' work," she said. "Now they view it as a safe spot to be because it's lit, and they won't get assaulted by other people that are urinating on the sidewalk."

Sunday School Barber Shop owner Richard Ornelas said his security camera has captured several people relieving themselves at the front door, including a pair of women doing it simultaneously.

Over the last few months, however, he said the frequency of incidents has decreased since he began letting a street performer take up digs outside.

"Before, I used to come in and there would be bottles and red cups and just trash at the door," he said. "I think the last (incident) was about three months ago. I think its helped a lot to have someone's presence out there, and then I put a spotlight that as soon as you walk in, it will illuminate you."

Downtown Business Alliance board president David Claxton said he's been fielding complaints and concerns from merchants for several years, noting that Thursday through Sunday evenings are when incidents occur the most.

"It's been going on for years," he said. "Yes, the homeless have been an issue downtown, but the bar hoppers are also an issue. Folks drive into town, they're drinking, they have a little too much, and they leave. But then they decide to urinate before they get into their cars to go home."

Claxton said the DBA has taken its concerns to the City of Lodi.

In fact, he said, Community Development Director John Della Monica spoke to the DBA at its Friday morning meeting about a new safety program for the downtown area.

He did not have specifics about the program, as he is currently out of town.

Della Monica was unavailable for comment Friday.