Homeless loitering at the Albertson's supermarket at 543 Sweetwater Rd. in Spring Valley has long been a problem for many customers and retailers in the shopping plaza. Groups of transients frequently gathered in the plaza, discouraging customer activity. Additionally, problems with alcohol theft from the supermarket was one of the main areas of concern for local law enforcement.
But thanks to a collaborative community effort, the retail shopping center is getting a facelift, and criminal activity has drastically decreased in the recent months.
The San Diego County Sheriff's Department, along with the Institute for Public Strategies (IPS) and several community groups have been working for more than a year to help cleanup the site and make it safer.
Recently, new exterior lighting was put up in the parking lot, making it safer at night, and the parking lot was paved and painted giving it a cleaner look. Trash pickup efforts and additional landscaping efforts have also improved the look of the plaza.
"It was a real problem area. Customers were afraid to go shopping there," said Jose Ortiz of the Sheriff's Crime Prevention Unit. "People were overwhelmed by the excessive panhandling, older ladies were threatened there, and the homeless situation was really bad."
Another of the persistent problems was that youth were stealing beer and alcohol from the supermarket and brazenly re-selling it out of the trunks of their cars in the parking lot.
"The alcohol situation was what first got IPS involved," said a representative from the agency. "There has been a noticeable change, but there's still a lot of work to be done."
About 18 months ago, the store began locking up its alcohol in glass cases. Now, when a customer wants to purchase alcohol, he or she has to ring a buzzer next to the display, and an employee walks the bottles up to the checkout counter.
"As soon as we installed the cases, we saw an immediate dropoff in alcohol loss," said Eric Wemett, store director for Albertson's. "We still get an occasional theft of beer, but it's gone down consistently. We used to average about 15-to-20 thousand dollars in liquor loss per quarter when the alcohol was freely accessible."
Wemett said that he knows it's inconvenient to some customers, but that the savings more than justify any potential loss of sales from customers who don't want to abide by the policy.
Tony Williams, who has been the manager at The UPS Store adjacent to Albertson's has also seen a big difference.
"We used to see kids blasting out of the Albertson's with beer and liquor and running back between the buildings to where someone was waiting for them," said Williams. "But we haven't seen or heard of that in quite some time."
The project started about two years ago, with the first year spent planning and implementing policies. Ortiz said the second year has been about putting the plan in place and actually making physical changes to the property. He added that the Sheriff's Department assinged a Special Purpose Deputy to the plaza to have a regular patrol and respond to any problems that come up.
The Sheriff's Department has also encouraged retail tenants in the space to form a makeshift "neighbordhood watch" and to report on any suspicious or illegal activity. The tenants often meet up a the Sheriff's substation in the plaza to share information and get updates.
There is still a push to make more improvements to the property as well.
"The next steps are to really get more community involvement," the IPS representative said. "We want to get another trash cleanup started, and have more parking bumpers painted, as well as to put up more 'No Loitering' signage in the parking lot."
So far, the improvements are tangible.
"The biggest improvements is the parking lot," said Williams. "It just makes people more comfortable to come down here and shop, and not be bothered by as many homeless."
Wemett agrees. He called the state of the parking lot before the paving "horrible, there's no other way to describe it." He said that there were so many potholes, that he's thankful that more people weren't hurt.
"It definitely seems like things are going in the right direction," he said.
(Editor's Note: As per an IPS media policy, individuals are not allowed to be quoted by name.)