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It Was a Bum Idea : Plan to Keep Sleepers Off Benches Didn't Sit Well With Officials

January 09, 1986|ALAN CITRON | Times Staff Writer

Santa Monica officials have removed the wood dividers that were bolted onto benches along the Third Street Mall during the holidays to discourage homeless people from sleeping there, calling the much-criticized action a mistake.

The so-called "bum bars" were removed by city workers last week. City Manager John Jalili said the strips, which were bolted to the backless benches to prevent anyone from lying down on them, never should have been installed.

"No one went through the official process on it," Jalili said. "You don't simply go ahead and nail in (dividers). This is an area we're trying to upgrade . . . and that was inconsistent with our efforts."

Asked for 'Arm Rests'

The strips were ordered last month by Thomas Carroll, executive director of the Third Street Development Corp., a nonprofit agency that is revamping the three-block outdoor mall for the city. Carroll said he asked the city to fashion"arm rests" that would discourage homeless people from sleeping on the 30 public benches.

Carroll said he was shocked by the "god-awful" results of the temporary strips, saying they were ugly and offensive to many people. "The solution obviously wasn't a good one," he said.

The 2-by-2-inch wood strips were installed by the city's general services department, according to director Stan Scholl. He said the strips were put in without city approval because Scholl saw them as an interim measure and Carroll indicated that he was in a hurry.

Scholl said it cost $600 to install the strips and $100 to remove them. He said his plans for installing more attractive strips were dropped after the city started receiving complaints.

One of the complaints came from City Councilman Dennis Zane, who spotted the strips while walking through the mall a couple of weeks ago.

"The were tacky looking and rude," Zane said. "I thought it was a bad idea, and they weren't even effective. People were sleeping on the benches anyway by using newspapers and other things as cushions."

Mayor Christine E. Reed said she did not learn about the barriers until after they had been removed. Reed said that she supported the idea of preventing homeless people from sleeping on benches, but suggested that the city install special chairs or benches that have built-in armrests instead of altering the existing benches.

"I would agree that the purpose of having seating in the mall is to have somewhere for people to sit and have their lunch or chat or whatever," Reed said. "But there are better ways to indicate to people that these (benches) should not be used as sleeping facilities."

The "bum bars" were the latest in a series of efforts to address the problem of the city's homeless. Other measures will be discussed at a City Council public hearing Jan. 21. Reed said residents continue to complain bitterly about the presence of vagrants.

"People are concerned," Reed said. "They don't see that there has been any improvement. . . . Most people believe that the problem is as bad, if not worse, than it was a year ago."

In a report published last month, City Manager Jalili said the City Council was following most of the recommendations that a special task force on the homeless had made a year ago. But Zane said that those actions, such as increasing funding for social services, do not go far enough. Saying the city's resources are limited, he called on county, state and federal officials to provide more money for shelters.

Councilman David G. Epstein said the city should organize an "outreach" team to work with vagrants. But the councilman, who has frequently criticized City Atty. Robert M. Myers for refusing to prosecute nonviolent homeless people, agreed that there are no easy answers.

No More Ideas

"We've done more than any city of our size and we're continuing to work on it," Epstein said. "But in a way we're running out of good ideas."

Reed said large numbers of vagrants can still be found in Palisades Park, a popular walkway overlooking the ocean. Vagrants also are seen downtown and along the city's beaches. In addition, Reed said large numbers of homeless people have started congregating in the city's public libraries.

Vince Muselli, president of the Santa Monica Area Chamber of Commerce, said the problem is out of control. In a recent advertisement, the chamber called on the council to "Give Us Back Our Parks and Streets." The ad advised residents to contact council members and demand that the city vigorously prosecute vagrant-related crimes and protect senior citizens, children and visitors.

"The issue is still out there on the streets," Muselli said. "The reason for the ad is to let the city and the police and the judges know that we are still very aware of the problem and we want (everyone) to get together and do something about it."

Collecting Signatures

The ad asks residents to return a coupon expressing their support for the chamber stance.

"We're going to try to gather as many signatures as we can to let the City Council know that there's really a lot of concern out there and that this is not a special-interest group issue," Muselli said.

Reed called the chamber effort gratuitous. She said chamber members would be much more effective if they attended the council's public hearing and "spoke from the heart." But she agreed that the hearing probably will not produce any major solutions or easy remedies to the problem.

"I don't believe there's going to be any major action (as a result of the hearing)," Reed said. "We have taken most of the action that a single city can take."

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