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INDIANAPOLIS– For years there has been no more popular noontime lunch spot downtown than the City Market with its more than a dozen food stalls plus a barber shop, florist, bar and merchandise.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit this spring.

“Before we have like 70 to 90 customers and now we have 10 or 15 every day, and if you look around, there is nobody in the Market,” said Zakaria Alyzyoud, owner of Ameer Middle Eastern Cuisine. “I think a lot of people are afraid to come back here because of COVID-19 and because of the people around the Market.”

“The people” Alzyoud referred to are those persons without shelter who have taken over the Plaza at the City Market around-the-clock and often leave it trashed with food and clothing debris, human waste, drug paraphernalia and bedding.

“We had people out here. We had fights. We had drug use. We had one girl that was sexually assaulted. We had people being robbed,” said John Mavrikis, owner of Grecian Garden. “But the perception now is Indianapolis is unsafe. The crime is out of control. The businesses are closed. And there’s nowhere to turn.”

Downtown Indianapolis still bears the scars of two nights of rioting following protests over social injustice in late May.

In the past two weeks, two people have been shot to death along the Canal.

Each night, from the Market to Monument Circle to doorways along Washington Street, persons without shelter sleep and live in the open.

Last week Mayor Joe Hogsett announced a million-dollar advertising campaign to convince visitors to return to downtown which is still saturated with boarded up windows and permanently closed restaurants and businesses.

“A one million-dollar marketing campaign?” scoffed Mavrikis. “That million dollars can be better spent helping small businesses.”

Merchants at the Market, owned by the city, have been granted rent abatement for the two months many of them were closed but were still responsible for shared expenses like security and utilities.

They’ve also been advised on how to access funding to pay for coronavirus Personal Protection Equipment.

Instead, foot traffic inside the Market is down dramatically and there are at least three empty stalls where food was formerly served as the merchants said they need a campaign aimed at getting the word out to downtown workers that the City Market is once again open and a safe place to eat lunch.

“I want to hear when we’re gonna have signage put up that’s supposed to tell when the hours of the plaza are,” said Cindy Hawkins of Circle City Sweets. “When we’ll have overnight security keeping people out of the Plaza overnights, how we’re gonna stop the people from coming to feed the residents of the Plazas on the weekends.”

City Market Director Stevi Stoesz said she’s working on it…but someone stole her banners.

“The trash, the debris, the unsafetyness around City Market, it is fairly new to us,” said Stoesz. “I mean there’s no doubt over the last several weeks we’ve seen a dramatic increase in unsheltered individuals coming to City Market, many of which appear to be engaged in illegal activities.”

Stoesz said today the Market’s private security vendor was interviewing candidates to patrol the Market and Plaza overnight and develop an around-the-clock security plan.

“We have shut off many of our outdoor outlets, we again are going to be having the 24-hour security presence, we have some signage in development right now indicating open and closed hours for our plazas, and once we get that overnight security presence, we’ll be barricading the security plazas.”

One security guard pointed to a group of people gathered on a picnic table outside the Market and said that while he does the best he can to keep the building safe for customers and employees, the outsiders have formed themselves into gangs to oppose enforcement of the rules.

Stoesz said increased cooperation with IMPD’s Downtown District has led to the arrests of drug dealers on the Plaza, and the Marion County Public Health Department has been made aware of volunteers who feed the people on the Plaza out of the trunks of their cars in violation of health code regulations as evidenced by the debris left behind.

Foot traffic inside the Market is down dramatically and there are at least three empty stalls where food was formerly served.

Hogsett’s office as well as City County Council President Vop Osili have been advised of the challenges facing the City Market merchants.

Stoesz said she has a meeting with merchants Tuesday to hear their concerns and advise them of her plans.