Zant Dixon, a Santa Monica parking structure guard for nine years, has no problem identifying many of the city's street people. He knows their legal names but has come to identify them by their street names.
In a recent brisk walk through Palisades Park and the old Santa Monica Mall, Dixon was accompanied by his new partner, Candida Padilla, and spotted, among others, "Jarhead," "Weasel" and "Crowbar."
"They all have nicknames," he said. "That's what they use on the streets. It's easy to familiarize yourself with them. You see them in the park, on the mall, along Broadway, in the parking structures."
Dixon and Padilla, a guard trainee, are part of a newly beefed up corps of guards employed by the city to keep in line some of the city's homeless who fight among themselves and panhandle aggressively, to the annoyance of business people, shoppers and park patrons.
Along with the patrol increase, the City Council has authorized several measures to help the homeless, estimated by social service agencies to number 750 to 1,000.
There has been an effort to mute the city political factions' disagreements over how to deal with the growing homeless population, said Councilman David J. Epstein, a member of the council's ruling moderate majority.
Groups associated with Epstein generally have called for more law enforcement, while those associated with the minority bloc on the council backed by renters have supported increasing social services.
"There was an awful lot of posturing by both groups," Epstein said. "What we are trying to do now--and I believe we are doing--is develop a consensus on actions that will address both concerns: more law enforcement and increased social services.
"In the past, each group would rise to the bait--as an example, I said I was going to fire (City Atty.) Bob Myers on election night when we gained the council majority. The fact is we don't have the votes (it takes five council votes to fire), and that is a rather extreme action anyway. We also realize that there is common ground for solutions to the issue."
Myers has said that while he supports arresting and prosecuting people who commit crimes, he is opposed to treating the homeless differently from other residents merely because of their low economic status.
City Manager John Jalili has appointed a citizens group reflecting a range of the city's approaches to the homeless to study the issue and make recommendations to the City Council by May 1.
The group has made interim recommendations that have been approved by the council. Some have been put into practice and others will be implemented shortly.
Among the recommendations:
- Increasing the number of parking security guards to eight from six and expanding their patrol territory from the parking structures and the mall to include Broadway and Palisades Park.
The main jobs of the guards, who are controlled by the Police Department but do not carry weapons and are instructed to avoid altercations, are to deter crime by their presence, discourage panhandling and enhance the sense of safety. "We are the Police Department's eyes and ears," said Dixon, who, like the other guards, carries a walkie-talkie for fast communication to police when assistance is needed.
- Hiring two social workers to determine if the homeless need or want help from private and government agencies in getting employment, meals or a place to sleep.
"We are looking for a social service agency to take over administration of the program," said Vivian Rothstein, community liaison officer for the city.
- Moving the program that serves about 150 meals a day to the indigent from Ocean Park Community Center to the Salvation Army. Residents near the center had complained of unsightliness and unsavory behavior by some meal recipients. The complaints stopped once the program was transferred to the Salvation Army, which is off the beaten path in the city's central business district.
- Adopting a resolution encouraging state and federal governments to deal more aggressively with problems of the homeless. "I think everyone agrees," Rothstein said, "that Santa Monica is not going to solve all the problems of the homeless. Everyone else has to become involved, too. We are not the only community with the problem."
The Rev. Charles Charles W. Elswick, pastor of 1st Christian Church of Santa Monica and chairman of the group studying recommendations to make to the City Council, refused to discuss specific proposals under consideration until they are presented to the council.
"Our goal is a balanced, constructive approach," he said. "We are trying not to react to either extreme of all social services or hard-line law enforcement.