Little Shop of Horrors

The first time, the thieves came through the front door, smashing the glass and going straight for the glimmering display case full of silver jewelry. They didn't touch the T-shirts, the magnetic clocks, or the martini glasses. Ignoring the Monica Lewinsky kneepads, the rubber aliens, and Catholic school salt- and peppershakers, they made off with handfuls of rings and earrings.

The second time it was the window. The shop owners had taken the police's advice and barricaded the front door with a metal grill. Unfazed, the criminals shattered the big picture window facing Broward Boulevard but ran off without stealing anything.

The third time -- two weeks ago -- the burglars came through the wall, forcing their way into the empty building next door and then using a three-foot metal spike -- the kind used to secure big tents -- to rip a gaping hole in the dry wall. The spike pierced a $1700 vintage movie poster -- Marilyn Monroe and Lawrence Olivier in The Prince and the Showgirl -- and the intruders ripped off thousands of dollars in jewelry. The owners of the shop at the corner of Broward Boulevard and Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale decided it was time to throw a going-out-of-business sale.

"This has turned out to be nothing but a nightmare," says Evan Bernstein, co-owner of J. Miles Funhouse, a tiny gift shop selling all sorts of yuppie knickknacks and novelty gifts. It opened just before Christmas and will be shutting its doors as soon as the owners clear out their inventory. "We wanted to open a shop that would appeal to the Ally McBeal types who work in all those downtown office buildings. Nobody told us there would be so much crime."

In a combined two decades of operating similar shops in South Beach and on Las Olas Boulevard, neither Bernstein nor his partner Jerry Miles was ever robbed. So the pair weren't prepared for the fear and economic strain that comes with being burglarized three times in just over a month. "You can't open anything around here without building a fortress," says Bernstein, who sold his South Beach shop two years ago to study massage therapy. "I'm going to go back to doing massage and selling old movie posters on the Internet," he says. "That's the safest thing to do."

Bernstein and many other merchants in the business district stretching east from Tent City -- the homeless camp west of Andrews Avenue -- blame the large numbers of drug and alcohol abusers in the camp for the rash of break-ins that has hit many of their establishments. Last week a new homeless shelter, the Broward County Central Homeless Assistance Center/Huizenga Family Campus, opened its doors a few blocks away on Sunrise, signaling the death knell for Tent City, which is scheduled to be completely dismantled next month. But far from improving the situation, many fear shutting down the camp will only make things worse. "I hear they're only going to take in the good ones and all the bad ones will be left on the street," says Eleuthere Karachalios, owner of the Mobil station on Federal Highway, around the corner from Bernstein's shop.

Laura Carey, executive director of the Broward Coalition For the Homeless, says that bleak assessment may not be very far off. The new shelter, according to Carey, is not equipped to deal with most the residents of Tent City, many of whom are grappling with mental illness or substance abuse and have been homeless for years. Still, she cautions pinning crime on their presence. "Usually the only crime they've committed is being homeless," she says, "which isn't a crime at all."

Last year the FBI ranked Fort Lauderdale sixth in the nation in terms of property crimes per capita, and although the number of break-ins near J. Miles Funhouse is only a small fraction of the city total, estimated by police at more than 700 per month, it is still an alarming number for an area of glassy high-rises that is mostly devoid of homes or retail shops. Police statistics put the number of burglaries in the area at 50 for the last six months and the number of triggered alarms at 231 for the same period. While there may be something to the argument that a high concentration of men and women without a source of income or a permanent address might explain much of this criminal activity, the penniless homeless can scarcely be blamed for all the armed robberies or car thefts that account for a portion of the statistical total. No matter who is to blame, the bottom line for many merchants is that police just aren't doing enough to protect them.

"We had to flag a police car down in the middle of the night," says Bernstein, who had already called police. "When an officer finally stopped to take my statement, he asked, 'What do you expect when you put shiny things in your window?'"

Gas station owner Karachalios learned the hard way the importance of covering his windows. "They broke two windows in one week," he says. "A few days ago they ripped open the back door."

For their part, police are torn between two city mandates, one stressing the civil rights of the homeless -- detailed last week in an internal police memo -- another urging a crackdown on petty crime. Police who might otherwise be inclined to roust suspicious characters lingering near shops in the middle of the night are now being urged to exercise more discretion. "We encourage them to spend a little bit of time talking to the homeless person," says Carey, whose agency organizes sensitivity training for police departments. "Rather than automatically make an arrest, officers [are urged] to determine what the issues are, whether it's mental illness or whatever, and then make referrals to the appropriate social service provider."

Glen Cattapano, owner of the Fetish Factory at the corner of Eighth Avenue and Federal Highway, is less sympathetic to the plight of the homeless men and women who often linger outside his store. "I understand the police have to be sensitive to the homeless," he says, "but that's no reason not to step up patrols. I pay loads of taxes in this city." Cattapano says the gates and windows of his shop show constant signs of tampering and his staff has twice been robbed at gunpoint. "There is serious shit going on right behind my store," he says. "There've probably been 15 smash-and-grabs in our parking lot." Last week, on one of the store's more lucrative days, an armed man held up the store and made off with $1800 in cash as well as the store's surveillance tapes. "The city is spending money on building beautiful medians, [money] that could go toward increasing police surveillance," says Cattapano, adding that he would gladly relocate if only he could afford to.

Other merchants are similarly frustrated with repeated break-ins. The Office Depot in the shopping plaza down the street was hit three times last year. On November 1, the night after its plate glass window was broken, someone pried open the wooden boards put up to cover the hole and made off with an answering machine. "After the third break-in in a row, the police staked out the place and threw a guy in jail," says a manager at the store, who only identified herself as Marilyn. "This morning I had to throw some drunk guy out who was cursing at me."

First Baptist Church of Fort Lauderdale around the corner on Broward Boulevard had more than a half-dozen break-ins last year. In early October police arrested a homeless woman found rummaging through the church building. She told them she was looking for money to buy food. A few days later, thieves smashed the front window of the church bookstore and made off with a dozen T-shirts.

"We forgive those who've broken in," says John O'Connor, a devout man who is the director of security at the church, which has programs to feed the homeless. "These people are our ministry."

Contact Jay Cheshes at his e-mail address:

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