DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — An estimated 5,000 homeless people are scattered throughout Volusia County, but one of the most likely places to see them is around Daytona’s oceanfront.

They can be spotted getting free food at beachside churches, digging through dumpsters on State Road A1A, sleeping under the pier and gazing out at the waves from a Boardwalk bench.

Many of the unsheltered are busy trying to survive and don’t bother anyone, but there are those who aggressively panhandle or spin out of control after drinking too much.

“Between downtown and the beachside, I get an earful,” said Daytona Beach City Commissioner Kelly White, referring to the city’s biggest hot spots for the homeless, both of which are in her zone.

White fields a steady stream of complaints from downtown and beachside business owners who say the homeless are scaring off and victimizing their customers. The commissioner tries to help, but she says there’s only so much she can do.

“We’re kind of chasing our tails until we put something permanent in place, like Safe Harbor,” said White, a supporter of the effort to create the Volusia Safe Harbor homeless shelter that would centralize help for those with no roof over their head. “We’ve just got to push for a holistic approach.”

Gary Koliopulos, longtime owner of the Beach Express gift shop near the Boardwalk, said he’s seen homeless people on the beach waiting for sunbathers to go in the water so they can swoop in and steal whatever they leave on the sand.

“They’re predatory,” Koliopulos said. “A lot of people come into my shop to buy flipflops and sunglasses because they were stolen.”

Nonetheless, Koliopulos doesn’t think Daytona has any more of an issue with the homeless than any other tourist city.

“Obviously it’s an issue that affects all types of destinations,” said Koliopulos, who recalled seeing homeless in the heart of Washington, D.C. bed down for the night in cardboard boxes. “You can go to West Palm Beach and you’ll see homeless people.”

Daytona Beach Police Chief Mike Chitwood said he has at least one officer keep an eye on the Boardwalk every night in the warmer months of the year, and that can swell to six or seven officers on nights that draw big crowds.

“We keep a presence,” said Chitwood, who sometimes cruises the Boardwalk on his bike.

Homeless people can sit on benches or the sand just like anyone else, and it’s only when they’re drinking alcoholic beverages in prohibited areas, panhandling, urinating in public or doing something else that would be illegal that police step in, Chitwood said.

The chief said he used to send officers onto the beach at 5 a.m. to rouse people sleeping in the dunes, but he no longer has the manpower to do that. The county government’s Beach Safety Ocean Rescue officers cover that duty now as part of their third-shift patrols that include keeping an eye out for people sleeping under the stars.

Vehicles have to come off the beach at 7 p.m., but anyone on foot can be on the beach at any hour, day or night, said Capt. Tammy Marris, a spokesperson for the Beach Safety Ocean Rescue team. What’s not legal at night is sleeping since there’s a county ordinance that prohibits camping on the beach, Marris said.

During the day, people can doze off on the beach, but if a beach officer spots someone snoozing they might check on them to make sure they’re OK, she said. After the sun goes down, if the beach officers who patrol 20 miles along the coast every night spot anyone catching their z’s, they’ll wake them up and ask for identification, Marris said.

The officers will check the person’s name for outstanding warrants, and if they’re not wanted for any crimes they’ll be given a warning, she said. People caught sleeping on the beach more than once will be arrested and charged with a misdemeanor.

About a half-dozen people are found sleeping along the waves every week in the warmer months, fewer in the fall and winter, Marris said.

In the nighttime hours when people are wandering the Boardwalk, playing games at the arcades and taking a spin on the go-kart track or roller coaster, there’s also a police officer hired by Boardwalk merchants keeping an eye on things, said Dino Paspalakis, who along with his family owns some of the gift shops and arcades.

“That way we can ensure family safety and address any issues that do come up to make sure the families have a great time,” Paspalakis said.

Some tourists spending time around the Boardwalk and beach recently said they didn’t have any problems with homeless people, or even see anyone who looked homeless. Kayla Atkins, one of the adults chaperoning 5,000 South Carolina kids who were on Daytona’s beachside for the better part of a week this summer for a church group event, said everything was going smoothly.

“We love it,” Atkins said. “I only have positive things to say.”

Debbi Burnett and Bob Eastham, friends from Sebring, also stayed at a beachside hotel and spent time around the Ocean Walk Shoppes and Boardwalk this summer. Both said they hadn’t had any problems with homeless people, or any other problems, and were having a great time.

“It has felt very relaxed, and everyone’s been very friendly,” said Burnett, who was visiting Daytona Beach for the first time.

Bob Davis, president and CEO of the Hotel & Lodging Association of Volusia County, said he hasn’t heard about any homeless complaints from hotel guests.

“The complaint I do hear is ‘I go out of my hotel, and five blocks in either direction there’s no good restaurants or boutique shops and it looks like Beiruit,” said Davis, who’s eager to see beachside redevelopment plans get into gear.

Fixing up existing buildings, bringing in new businesses and drawing more tourists would be a deterrent to transients, Davis said.

Paige Koerbel, general manager of the Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfront Resort, said his hotel keeps its radar up for homeless people who could cause trouble. The hotel has private security officers who pay special attention to rooms at ground level that face the Boardwalk and walk through the complex’s two towers throughout the night to net the occasional homeless person who’s found sleeping inside.

“It’s always a little bit of a concern,” said Koerbel, who noted police have been good about responding quickly to problems too big for security officers to handle. “It’s not a rampant problem.”

White hopes the proposed shelter will be the solution both for those on the streets who need help and businesses who’ve struggled with problems related to the homeless.

“I’m very optimistic,” White said. “It’s still top priority for a lot of people.”

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Photo Credit: The scene at Daytona Beach, Florida. Ines Yeh / Flickr