L5P retailers wary of homeless population

A perceived decrease in business in Little Five Points has store owners wondering whether to blame a downtown panhandling ban, a slackening economy — or the behemoth shopping center recently built just blocks away.

At a time when big-box shopping in Atlanta is on an upswing, some independent retailers, such as those in Little Five Points' quirky shopping district, say they're struggling to stay afloat. Store owners from as far away as Norcross cite how IKEA and the national-chain retailers in the newly opened Atlantic Station seem to be overtaking the market.

"We're a specialty store," says Roger Barfield, president of Great Futon Port on Jimmy Carter Boulevard. "It's hard to combat a large store like IKEA as a niche marketer."

What's more, store owners in Little Five claim their situation has been exacerbated by downtown's new panhandling ban, which outlaws begging in a specific "tourism triangle" and supposedly has resulted in panhandlers migrating west.

Last month, Houseworks owner David Roe relocated his shop to Decatur after complaining to the city that the homeless population in Little Five Points' Finley Park was running off customers.

"There's no question I lost a lot of business," Roe says. "There are plenty of places people can go to shop and not get harassed, and Little Five Points isn't one of them."

Before Roe moved, he wrote a letter to Mayor Shirley Franklin asking for better enforcement of loitering laws in the neighborhood's public square. He says he circulated the letter among businesses and residents and netted 30 to 40 signatures.

But Little Five Points always has had a homeless population — and, until recently, a sort of laissez-faire attitude toward it. Thus it could be that gentrifying forces including rising property values — not to mention the introduction of mega-retailers such as Best Buy, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Target — are making Little Five somewhat less accepting of its shabbier inhabitants.

Chuck DeFrancis, who leases retail space in Little Five Points, says volunteers who feed the homeless on weekends contribute to the problem by making food, rather than long-term help, available.

Like DeFrancis, Don Bender, a Little Five Points retail landlord and developer, says a panhandling ordinance in the neighborhood's retail district actually could help some of the homeless inhabitants, many of whom have alcohol and drug problems and need to enter a recovery program. Bender also believes the number of homeless people in Little Five has increased with the arrival of Katrina-displaced evacuees.

But Bender, who leases 35 spaces in Little Five Points (and currently has only one vacant property), also says he thinks it's the neighboring big-box retailers at the Edgewood Retail District — and not the homeless population — that should force L5P retailers to rethink their appeal.

"The homeless population has always caused a problem, but that doesn't mean we should blame them for losing business," Bender says. "We just have to make adjustments and find our place in relation to [the Edgewood Retail District].

"The folks who survive shift a bit, and the folks on auto-pilot don't."

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