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City Heights Seniors Want Park Curfew After Alleged Crimes Leave Them Fearful

This undated photo taken by a Potiker City Heights Residence tenant shows gra...

Credit: Ron Tieken / Potiker City Heights Residence tenant

Above: This undated photo taken by a Potiker City Heights Residence tenant shows graffiti on a table at the City Heights Square Mini Park.

About six months ago, Nancygayle Gallaher was startled by an incident at the City Heights Square Mini Park. The park is right next to Potiker City Heights Residence, a senior facility where she rents an affordable apartment.

The park is a small courtyard where Gallaher used to sit with Preston, her adopted terrier mix. But last summer a man in the park, whom she described as "pretty well lit," made sexual comments toward her. Now, she said, “I don’t go and sit in there anymore unless it’s empty.”

Gallaher said she could put up with a lot because she encountered similar situations during the years she was homeless, but last summer's incident startled her. She said groups of people are bringing crime and drugs into the park.

"It’s just become a party place," Gallaher said.

Potiker residents and management say the problems go further than noise, nuisance and drugs. Now they’re fighting back and asking for a park curfew of 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. They’re seeking preliminary approval this week and hope it moves on to the San Diego City Council for a final OK.

Melinda Forstey, chief operating officer for Serving Seniors, which operates Potiker, said the problems include violence and prostitution. She said the issues are bleeding over into the affordable senior facility, especially when residents return from the park after having a cigarette.

"A lot of our residents do come here (to the park) to smoke and when they are trying to get back in our building sometimes they are followed by someone from the park and they’re fearful to not let them in. So that has caused some instances to happen in our building as well," Forstey said.

In a phone interview, on-site manager Suzanna Rosario told KPBS that staff found a syringe in the building's open bathrooms. Another time in there, they found a man with a woman whom Rosario claimed was known to prostitute. Rosario said employees didn't contact the cops for those incidents but have since started locking the bathrooms.

Forstey said they are now regularly alerting the San Diego Police Department about the ongoing problems.

"They’ve been responsive as they can be. I know they’re understaffed. They were patrolling the park one to two times a day earlier," she said.

The police department would not agree to an interview, but in an email, Mid City Division Captain Todd Griffin said officers are mostly limited to citations for drug use. He confirmed a woman was arrested near the park in December after she attacked a resident and spit on a manager.

Griffin said residents should report problems to the police, mentioning the department's multicultural storefront and meetings with community relations officers, and submit complaints to the city's Get It Done application.

"Policing is a shared responsibility with the community and we rely on our residents to keep us pointed in the right direction," the police captain said in an email.

The city of San Diego also did not provide an interview. Spokesman Tim Graham said in an email that staff is familiar with the situation at the park.

"The Parks and Recreation Department is aware of illegal activity and vandalism occurring at the City Heights Mini Park and has notified San Diego Police Department of the reported issues at the park," said Graham, noting the proposed curfew as a recommendation.

Forstey said staff are reporting incidents to the police and the city and have previously met with a community relations officer.

Their next step is the request to close the park during the night and early morning hours. Potiker is arranging vans to transport seniors to a Park and Recreation Board meeting Thursday where they can make their case, and they have a lot of support from community groups.

A November letter from Price Charities and Price Philanthropies Foundation said it has heard and "observed first-hand" public safety concerns at the park since 2014.

"These activities include gang activity, drug dealing, drug use, prostitution, graffiti and litter related to these damaging activities," said the letter signed by Executive Vice President Sherry Bahrambeygui, who was recently named chief executive officer of PriceSmart.

The City Heights Recreation Advisory Group, City Heights Business Association and SAY San Diego also support the curfew.

Photo caption: Nancygayle Gallaher sits in her apartment at Potiker City Heights Residence w...

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Nancygayle Gallaher sits in her apartment at Potiker City Heights Residence while her dog lies on the back of her chair, Feb. 15, 2019.

Not all Potiker tenants agree people in the park cause problems. One woman who didn’t want to be identified said some are just homeless and need a place to rest. Even resident Gallaher said some are kind, like the man she asked for a quarter to finish laundry.

"He was counting all this change to give me 25 cents — dimes and nickels, and he was going to hand me those dimes and nickels. And I apologized, 'I'm so sorry, I need just a quarter for the dryer,'" she said.

But she agrees something needs to be done. A survey conducted by a tenant found drugs, homeless move-ins and street gangs as the top reasons residents avoid the outdoor space next door.

"It’s just that we can’t use the park, and I honestly, I really don’t what they can do about it," Gallaher said.

Neighborhood groups say there are crime issues at four other mid city parks. The Park and Recreation Board will also hear curfew proposals for those locations.

Management and residents at a senior apartment facility say a public park next door is drawing criminal activity that's affecting the building's tenants.

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