NEW SMYRNA BEACH — Rachail Allen’s security cameras have captured homeless people taking a dip in the pool outside her Faulkner Street home, and stealing her plants, flags and house decorations.
She’s also been aggressively hit up for drugs, cash and food by homeless people in Riverside Park. Other New Smyrna Beach residents have woken up to find someone sleeping on their front porch or watched homeless people slip in and out of woods near their homes.
Over the past two years, the city has come face to face with the reality that it has a growing homeless population. Leaders of the southeast Volusia County city realize the number of unsheltered people is likely to keep climbing if they don’t intervene, and they’re struggling to find their way out of the dilemma that’s been thrust upon them.
“I don’t want to become the next Seattle,” said New Smyrna Beach Mayor Russ Owen. “I don’t want to become a homeless Mecca.”
Seattle is at crisis stage with around 12,000 homeless people at last count. New Smyrna Beach is in another, much smaller, homeless galaxy with around 50-75 homeless people.
Counts done by well-meaning volunteers always miss homeless people who can’t be found or purposely evade the annual homeless census done nationwide. But regardless of what New Smyrna Beach’s true tally is, the city’s homeless population has been expanding enough that longtime residents are noticing and worrying about how much worse it could get.
Catch up on New Smyrna Beach’s growing homeless problem:New Smyrna Beach wrestling with growing homeless problem
Read related homeless coverage:First Step Shelter helps Volusia women find peace, home
More on First Step Shelter happenings:Daytona Beach’s First Step Shelter raising money with May 22-31 walkathon
There’s a mix of reasons New Smyrna Beach is developing a more visible homeless problem. Two main causes are vagrants migrating from other cities that have cracked down on them, and economic struggles spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.
New Smyrna searches for homeless solution
City leaders have discussed possible solutions over the past year or two. They’ve taken a look at panhandling regulations like the ones in Daytona Beach that almost wiped out panhandling overnight at the beginning of 2019.
City commissioners have talked about becoming official partners of First Step Shelter and sending their homeless to that comprehensive assistance agency for homeless adults on Daytona Beach’s western edge.
And most recently they batted around the idea of putting a small cluster of trailer buildings and tiny homes on property just west of U.S. 1 near the New Smyrna Beach Police Department. That idea was instantly hated by many local residents, about 200 of whom showed up at a City Commission meeting a few weeks ago to make their opposition crystal clear.
“I am totally against a homeless shelter in this town, period,” resident Dennis Dexter told commissioners.
Dexter, one of 24 people to speak at the meeting, drew a round of applause when he suggested New Smyrna Beach send its homeless people to First Step Shelter.
Several residents said the site north of State Road 44 that was being considered for the temporary housing is the wrong spot because of its proximity to a sports complex, skate park, dog park, homes and a business park.
“I want to protect my neighborhood and this community, and I say no,” said Sally Jowers, a 50-year resident of New Smyrna Beach.
City leaders never put together a detailed plan to use the property off of Industrial Park Avenue for homeless housing. There was only a general idea to use the trailers for dorm-style living, and everything from costs to logistics hadn’t been worked out.
What was on last month’s meeting agenda was a proposed amendment to land development regulations to add temporary housing facilities. Commissioners wound up voting down the measure unanimously.
If the proposal had passed, it wouldn’t have been enough by itself to lead to a small…