Already strapped by the recession economy, Cambridge businesses say they are increasingly wary about the impact of homeless people on their ability to attract shoppers.
But Cambridge homeless advocacy groups say there is blatant discrimination against the homeless by business and by the police.
"There's no question about it," says Jack M. McCambridge, director of the Homeless Civil Rights Project. "Merchants associations have political connections that call up the cops because its bad for their business."
"And in most cases they [homeless people] don't know what rights they have," McCambridge adds. "They think they have no rights."
Although there are ordinances against panhandling in Cambridge, laws against vagrancy were declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967, McCambridge says.
Cambridge Police Commissioner Perry L. Anderson says that most of the city's complaints concerning the homeless are around business areas. But Anderson says those complaints usually result in no more than a warning for panhandlers.
"We don't spend a lot of time dealing with individual panhandlers," says Anderson. "If they become violent, then they are arrested, and for minor crimes they go to jail for a short time."
And despite the advocacy groups' claims of police intolerance, Anderson maintains that the homeless are treated fairly. "There's a very liberal and accommodating attitude in Cambridge," adds Anderson "There's no hostile attitude by the citizenry or the police...very seldom do you hear of someone abusing homeless person, and we don't have a lot of homeless people in jail cells."
And although most businesses say they usually don't call the police or even ask people to leave unless they are disruptive to the clientele, they agree that homeless loitering definitely affects business.
"Its devastating for people to be faced with homelessness when they are eating or shopping," says Richard L. Friedman, managing general partner of the Charles Square Complex. "There's often a reaction of fear or disgust or avoidance."
John P. DiGiovanni, vice-president of Trinity Property Management which operates The Garage and the Atrium, agrees that there are pressures on business to move the homeless out of their vicinity.
But DiGiovanni says that moving the homeless from the Square solves few problems, because they congregate in other business neighborhoods.
And although Cambridge managers say they cannot legally prohibit the homeless from staying in the streets outside their businesses, they feel that the presence of loiterers hinders the safety and comfort of their customers.
"Loitering affects business," says DiGiovanni, who has offered homeless people employment in the past. "Unfortunately it is a problem, a large, large one."
"If you're running a business, it affects it," he adds. "There's a fine line and the police have to decide where to draw it... its a difficult situation."
Last fall, Au Bon Pain signed an agreement with the Homeless Civil Rights Project which set out guidelines for dealing with homeless people in the restaurant. In the accord, Au Bon Pain agreed to treat all patrons, especially the homeless, with "courtesy and dignity."
And Louis Kane, the co-chair and chief executive officer of Au Bon Pain, says the recent guidelines have worked well and the problem of homeless loitering in the restaurant has decreased. "We treat the homeless no differently," says Kane. "As long as they conduct themselves properly."
In the Central Square area of Cambridge, business managers say they do not have regular problems with homeless people, but the loitering does affect the neighborhood's reputation. "It hasn't affected my business." says Vincent Doucette, manager of the Burger King in Central Square. "It goes with the territory in Central Square. "It goes with the territory in Central Square. It's just a whole perception that its not a place to visit."
The problem for the city's business's is that many homeless people make customers uncomfortable. "We want a pleasant atmosphere," Kane says. "Business will suffer if we have an unpleasant atmosphers."
But for McCambridge and scores of homeless people it is an issue of dignity and human rights. Says McCambridge: "They have the same right as anybody else to stay on the sidewalk."