August 20, 2014

Elyria
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Lorain business owners say shelter clients are driving people from downtown

LORAIN — According to some downtown business owners, a minority of Lorain Family Center clients are causing a majority of the quality-of-life problems in the neighborhood.

Frustrated business people discussed the problems Wednesday at the police station with representatives from Catholic Charities, which runs the center that provides food, shelter and support to poor people. Complaints included aggressive panhandling, drinking, drug dealing, littering, loitering, sexual harassment and vulgar behavior and language.

Complainants stressed that the majority of clients are law-abiding, but they said about 50 hardcore troublemakers regularly loiter around the center, causing problems and discouraging customers from doing business in the area.

“It becomes almost like a gang mentality,” said Don Kwilecki, manager of Kwilecki Associates, an insurance company located by the center at 203 W. Eighth St. “The criminal element is definitely there.”

Complainants included Renee Dore, wife of Safety Director Phil Dore, who moderated the meeting attended by about 50 people. Renee Dore, who works at Specialty Medical Services near the center, said female workers are regularly subjected to catcalls from male clients and some customers refuse to visit to pay their bills.

“Nobody is allowed to be in that office alone at any time,” she said. “It’s terrible for business.”

Renee Dore and Kwilecki expressed sympathy for clients, many of who are homeless, unemployed, underemployed and unable to make ends meet on their paychecks. Traffic at the center, which sees between 80 to 140 people per day, is up since the recession, said David Boyce, center program director since 2008.

About 44 million Americans — including about 44,000 in Lorain County — were living below the poverty line in 2009, according to the U.S. Census and a record 44.4 million Americans — including 1.8 million Ohioans — were receiving food stamps in April, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

About 14.1 million people were unemployed in June with the national unemployment rate rising to 9.2 percent from 9.1 percent in May. In Lorain, unemployment rose from 8.4 percent in May to 10.1 percent in June.

Phil Dore said after the meeting that the troublemakers help create a false perception that downtown is dangerous. In hindsight, Dore said locating the center downtown in 1984 wasn’t a good idea, but Lorain was different then.

“Twenty-five years ago in Lorain we had a Ford plant, we had a steel plant, we had shipyards, we had a crane factory, there wasn’t a lot of hungry people then,” he said. “Now all of a sudden it’s an epidemic.”

Phil Dore said that police target enforcement to discourage troublemakers, but personnel is limited. The Police Department, which is hiring nine new officers, has about 90 officers, compared with 102 when Dore was appointed safety director in 2008.

The center, which is open Monday through Friday in the daytime and serves lunch at 11:30 a.m. and dinner on Wednesday at 4:30 p.m., employs an auxiliary police officer. However, auxiliary officers, who are paid about $10 per hour, have no powers of arrest. Hiring off-duty police officers, who are paid about $25 per hour, would be too expensive, said John Klee, senior director for Catholic Charities Diocese of Cleveland. He noted that similar problems occur at the downtown library.

“We’re willing to work with the community, but (the problems) are not specific to us,” Klee said. “We’re trying to operate and provide good services in a safe environment.”

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.