CARLSBAD — Ted Klement figured he'd seen it all. But then one morning a scruffy transient strolled into his restaurant on Elm Avenue here and locked himself in the bathroom.
Thirty minutes passed, and Klement was beginning to wonder about the fellow's fate when suddenly he emerged--wrapped from head to toe in toilet paper. As the startled restaurateur and his patrons--pausing over their pancakes--looked on, the man paraded through the dining room and headed for the door, leaving a paper trail in his wake.
"I've had all kinds of really choice people give me trouble in here--screaming, showing the finger at the customers, lighting the restroom wastebasket on fire," said Klement, who owns Mariah's West Wind Restaurant. "But that guy wrapped like a mummy was the winner."
Klement's encounter with the mummified transient may have been dramatic, but in the opinion of some downtown merchants, the episode was not unusual. According to these business owners, Carlsbad, an upscale community known more for its trendy boutiques than its bums, has a feisty homeless population that is disrupting life downtown.
"The city officials may not realize it, because they don't work day in, day out, in the village, but Carlsbad does have a homeless problem," said Janice Selby, who owns Selby's Tea and Coffee House, a small restaurant on a busy downtown corner. "Ever since the weather turned cold, the situation has been getting worse. It's a shock. We're not used to seeing this kind of undesirable, mean character in town."
Despite the merchants' tales of woe, civic leaders here dispute the notion that Carlsbad has suddenly become a haven for the homeless. Police and elected officials alike say they have yet to see any evidence indicating there is an escalating homeless problem in their community.
That posture has prompted some business owners to suggest that city fathers, proud of a rejuvenated downtown that has won the envy of redevelopment officials throughout the county, are either blinded by success or reluctant to confront a transient problem for fear of soiling Carlsbad's image as a prosperous, tourist-friendly community.
"I don't know if it's deliberate denial of the problem or if the city officials are simply not aware of it," said Marlene Goldberg, who owns Quo Vadis,a travel accessories shop on Grand Avenue. "But they need to look into this. Something has to be done."
Most of the merchants with complaints own retail stores and eateries along Grand and Elm avenues, Carlsbad's two major east-west commercial strips. These shop owners say that since cold weather set in, an increasing number of transients have begun loitering in their stores, panhandling, harassing employees and exhibiting odd behavior--hissing, swearing and screaming--until police arrive and escort them out.
"A lot of downtown business owners are women, and it can be very frightening when some of these tough guys plant themselves in your store and won't leave," said Goldberg, who endures an "incident" involving a disruptive transient in her store several times a week.
"It's also very frustrating. We're trying to set up our businesses and make this a real nice place for shopping and this harassment hurts. I don't think the community should have to put up with that sort of thing."
So far, merchants suffering harassment at the hands of street people have done little more than grumble about the problem among themselves. A few calls have been made to council members, and the issue has been discussed at the Downtown Village Merchants Assn. meeting, but business owners concede they are reluctant to make a fuss for fear of discouraging shoppers during the lucrative holiday season. Also, many seem somehow resigned to their fate.
"I've complained to police several times, but they can't be arresting people all the time just because they look weird," Klement said. "Many of us realize that there's just not a good solution to the homeless."
City officials expressed mixed reactions to the merchants' complaints. Some say that Carlsbad has always hosted its share of the homeless, while others maintain that aside from one or two "regulars," the city has been virtually transient-free. Most say they have not witnessed what some merchants perceive as an influx of a new, tougher-type of transient.
"There's no question that we have homeless here, basically because we're a beach town along the route to somewhere, north or south," said Doug Yavanian, executive vice president of Carlsbad's Chamber of Commerce. "I get to work real early in the morning and I see them sleeping over in the parks. Sometimes they come in and use our public restroom. But I haven't noticed any more or less this year. There certainly isn't an epidemic."
Mayor Mary Casler said she has received no complaints about the situation and could offer no immediate solutions.