GRANTS PASS — Last December, several downtown merchants shared their concerns about "street people" and their aggressive behavior.
They noted growing numbers of vagrants who prowl downtown alleys and sidewalks, defecate against walls, strew trash, frighten potential customers and respond aggressively when confronted.
Now the problem appears worse than ever.
Cliff Bennett of Chet's Garden Center on Fifth Street has been in business downtown for more than two decades. In December, he said the problems with street people — their numbers and their behavior — were the worst he had seen.
He also predicted it would get worse when the weather got better. He now says he was correct.
"I'm seeing new ones," Bennett said on Monday.
Other merchants concur.
"I see fresh ones all the time," Jack Smith of Blind George's on G Street said. "There are new ones once, twice, even three times a week."
"There are more than ever," said Janice Munro of Old Town Antique Mall on Sixth Street.
An increase in jail space — one aspect of what police said it would take to address the problem — became a reality on Aug. 1 after the city leased space exclusively for city prisoners in the Josephine County jail.
"I know, basically, the officers feel much better that they can make a difference" by being able to arrest people, said Bill Landis, deputy chief of Grants Pass Public Safety.
He said police have jailed several offenders every day since the contract kicked in.
Knowing their behavior can land them in jail is a deterrent for some people, Landis noted. "People with drug and alcohol problems don't want to go to jail. They don't want to be away from their stuff," he said.
Regardless, Smith doesn't believe the extra jail space has had or will have any impact on the problem.
"Our transient problem, if you had 5,000 jail beds, it wouldn't cure the problem," Smith said. "They're charged with misdemeanors. They're back after an overnight stay (in jail)."
Over the winter, Munro had multiple encounters with street people who seemed to have staked a claim to the alley behind her business.
They are no longer in the alley, so she doesn't have to clean up after them. However, they are only a few feet away, on the other side of Sixth Street from her business. "I can look out my front window and see them any time," she said.
Munro is concerned about her safety and she's sure the presence of street people has discouraged potential customers. "I think business has been worse this year than ever," she said.
Bennett and his son volunteer to water hanging flower baskets in the downtown area early in the morning.
"We hit the streets about 5:30," he said. "We see them moving about all over. They don't walk the streets. They walk the alleys."
The Bennetts say they have encountered some uncomfortable moments and in some cases they have simply avoided watering on a particular street because of the behavior they've seen.
"There are some scary ones out there," Bennett said.
For instance, on Aug. 1 a woman tried to force her way into their truck when they stopped to water flowers on Caveman Bridge. They locked her out and when police arrived, Bennett said the woman assaulted one of the officers. She was arrested and jailed.
Smith said ways are needed to discourage street people without violating their civil rights.
"I don't like picking up human crap. I don't like cleaning up garbage dumped behind the store," Smith said. "I have civil rights, too."
It would help, Smith said, if people would stop giving vagrants money for food.
"They aren't spending it on food. There are lots of places in town where they can get free food," he added.
Bennett and Smith both said it might improve the situation if free meals weren't available in Grants Pass.
That's unlikely to happen because the groups that provide free meals are dedicated to helping people in need. At February's community forum, it was proposed that many vagrants are just down on their luck and not the aggressive and sometimes violent street people who are a threatening presence downtown.
Meanwhile, people who shop and work downtown do so warily.
"It's a little creepy down here," Munro said.
"I will not walk around town. It doesn't feel safe," Smith said.
Reach Daily Courier reporter Jim Moore at 541-474-3721 or email@example.com.