LOS ANGELES - A business owner on the Venice Beach Boardwalk is closing his ice cream store after a rise in crime, drugs and encampments during the pandemic.
Klaus Moeller, the co-owner of Ben & Jerry's at Venice Beach, said the ice cream shop opened three years ago in the area.
"It was doing really well and Venice always had homeless people, but it's never been a problem and we've always taken care of the homeless. Our security guard is a homeless guy who lives in a tent and has been working as our security guard for two and half years and is phenomenal," he said.
Moeller said he always had a good relationship with the homeless community in Venice Beach, and would allow them to sleep in front of his store before the pandemic.
"The homeless that have always been there are fantastic and sweet. We give them coffee and ice cream, and they're really darling. They're just people who have fallen on hard times. They [homeless people] were basically protecting our store from taggers. We are the only store on the boardwalk that hasn't had graffiti on it," he said.
However, when the pandemic hit, the area changed drastically, according to Moeller.
"When COVID hit, they [city officials] decided to turn the boardwalk into a shelter for the homeless. They started saying look it's winter -- it's not tourist season -- and we're going to start housing people on the boardwalk where they can semi socially distance, and they're away from residential neighborhoods, and we didn't think much about it then. And then in March, they closed us down and as soon as the boardwalk was completely closed, everybody came in. Word spreads because everybody has an iPhone nowadays, and literally they closed the boardwalk down and in two weeks, it was a sea of encampments and it never recovered from that," said Moeller.
Moeller said the area has seen a rise in drugs and crimes.
"People are like there have always been drugs in Venice. And yeah, people would smoke pot, skateboard and sell dreamcatchers. Now, it's meth and heroin that people are doing and dealing. We've had two people shot dead outside of Ben & Jerry's. We've had -- I don't even know -- how many people that have accosted staff and stolen things. We've had someone on meth jump over the counters and hit the kids in the face with a gas can saying they're going to torch the building to the point where it's just not safe," he said.
Moeller said some parents of his employees do not want their kids to work at the shop anymore.
"A lot of the kids that used to work for us, their parents don't allow them to work for us because it is just so dangerous and I get it. We are closing earlier now. We close before dark because we can't have the kids walk home in the back alley in the dark and it's just really sad," he said.
Moeller said the problem is the crime and drugs.
"I've had everything stolen. All of our bicycles, our patio furniture, and police are like, 'What do you want us to do?'" he said.
Moeller said in February of 2020, their sales were up 40% before the pandemic. However, the shop lost "half" of its clients because of the lack of tourism during the pandemic, and the other half do not want to return.
"We had a lot of families that live here that have kids and they would come and eat ice cream. Not one of them comes anymore because as soon as they leave the store, some transient would come up to them not wearing a mask and asking for change and food and they're like look we're not taking our little kids to the boardwalk," he said.
He said the store did $120 in sales in 8 hours one day, and their sales are down 90% from last year.
Moeller has contacted city officials like Councilmember Mike Bonin. He said Bonin did not respond, but a member of his staff did speak with him.
"She was very good at explaining things. She said, 'Look, if we move the homeless from the boardwalk, they're just going to be two blocks in a residential neighborhood where families with kids live.' I tried to get the city to hopefully enforce the rule where they have to leave at 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. so we would have at least seven hours where we could do business, and the city told us it's Parks and Rec, not the city that is in charge," he said.
Moeller believes the larger issue is mental health and the lack of resources for people struggling with addiction.
"There's a bigger problem that I don't think is getting addressed here," he said.
Moeller is shutting down his store for now, and hoping to work out a deal with the landlord.
"We're hoping that we work out a lesser rent, and obviously we've applied for the PPP loan, and hopefully that will come through. We're lucky because we have some other businesses otherwise we'd be bankrupt. I would be homeless. If Ben & Jerry's was our only business, I'd be homeless. We lost a lot of money last year. We lost over $200,000 last year," he said.
Moeller said he is most concerned for his staff of 24 employees which has become a family of its own.
"It breaks my heart because they're the ultimate ones that will pay the price. I'll lick my wounds, but they don't have savings. They live from paycheck to paycheck. If they don't get a month's paycheck, it's really serious," he said.
FOX 11 reached out to City Councilmember Mike Bonin's office for comment, and will update the story if and when one is given.