Pointers from Paulie B: How to Deal with Loiterers (Part 1)

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(Photo: © iStockphoto/jetcityimage)

Paul Russo |

Problem can become chronic, especially for unattended stores

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Many of us have experienced loitering by the homeless or others at one time or another. It’s a big problem that can literally ruin your laundry business by scaring customers away. It must be dealt with if your business is to thrive.

For some of you, especially those running unattended stores, the problem is chronic. Loitering, especially by the homeless, is a social problem that is much bigger than us alone. It really is a problem that must be dealt with by our politicians, but don’t hold your breath for that.

Years ago, New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani did a fantastic job cleaning up the streets of NYC with his “broken windows theory,” but after he left office, the homeless problem returned.

So what can be done if you’re experiencing loitering where you are? Here are some tips to help:

LIGHTING

Paying customers are drawn to a well-lit Laundromat like moths to a light bulb. Vagrants, not so much. Just like good lighting makes customers feel safe and comfortable, it also makes loiterers uncomfortable. A passing patrol car might spot them. So, boost your lighting.

SEATING

The first place a loiterer will park themselves is on one of your benches. If you have a chronic issue with people sleeping on your benches, a good solution is to install benches with armrests that divide the bench into individual chairs, making it much harder for them to sleep on. A similar thing can be done with folding tables.

RESTROOMS

While a nice, clean restroom is a great draw for customers, unfortunately, it’s also one of the biggest draws for loiterers. They will come in and do a body bath in your restroom. You must keep it locked and allow only paying customers to have access.

In New York City, Laundromats are not required to provide restrooms, but most restaurants are required, so we would tell people, “It’s out of order, but there’s another restroom nearby at ...”

Yes, it’s a classic passing-the-buck tactic, but you need to do what you can.

When we were going through a time of high flow of vagrants (there seems to be an ebb and flow with them), we would put an out-of-order sign on the bathroom door.

SHUT OFF YOUR TV

Another draw for any type of loiterer is your TVs. Make sure you have the ability to shut them off remotely. An attendant can discreetly flip a breaker and, if confronted, can tell the person that the boss controls the TVs and he shuts them off after he spots a loiterer on the store’s cameras.

If your mat is unattended, there are many devices now that allow you to control appliances using an app on your cell phone.

NIP IT IN THE BUD

This is so important! If a loiterer finds he/she is successful in spending the day or night at your mat, it will become one of his/her regular “crash sites” and he/she will stake a claim. The very first time a loiterer comes in, your attendant must promptly ask him/her to leave; if your store is unattended, you must do it through a remote public address system when you spot the person on your surveillance system. A PA system announcement can surprise them, as it gives a suggestion of authority and that someone is watching.

Your attendant will often be afraid to confront a loiterer, and you can’t blame them. A good technique to help attendants feel more comfortable in confronting a loiterer is to tell the attendant to ask a customer or two to stand next to them while she politely asks the loiterer to leave. There’s more power in numbers, and it will be easier for your attendant to find the courage to ask the person to leave.

Sometimes they will leave, sometimes they won’t. I have found that when it’s a person’s first time loitering, they tend to be more compliant. Once they have been successful in staying put, it becomes much harder for you to remove them.

It’s important to never confront a loiterer in anger. Only ask politely! You never know if the person is mentally ill, or they may have a record of run-ins with the law.

Check back Thursday for the conclusion featuring more loitering-lessening tips!

About the author

Paul Russo

Paul Russo owned and operated multiple Laundromats in New York City for more than 40 years before retiring in 2018. He’s a regular on the Coin Laundry Association’s online forum, posting under the pseudonym “Paulie B.” Any questions or comments for Russo may be directed to Editor Bruce Beggs, [email protected]

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