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L.A. Opens City Hall as Shelter for Homeless : Council's Temporary Action Spurred by Deaths of Four Street People During Recent Cold Snap

January 21, 1987|RICHARD SIMON and NIESON HIMMEL | Times Staff Writers

Spurred by the deaths last week of four street people from exposure to near-freezing temperatures, the Los Angeles City Council opened City Hall on Tuesday night to temporarily house the homeless.

The decision was made on a 10-0 vote by the council earlier Tuesday--a few days after Mayor Tom Bradley refused to open public buildings as temporary shelters, citing the city's potential legal liability in case of injury.

Since Bradley' decision, however, the coroner's office has confirmed four deaths due to hypothermia.

Bradley in Africa

The mayor was in Africa on a trade mission Tuesday and was unavailable for comment, but Bradley's press secretary, Ali Webb, said that she had apprised the mayor by phone of the council's action and he concurred.

Authorities had come under harsh criticism for failing to provide shelter for the homeless during the cold spell, which began last Thursday and reached its lowpoint Saturday night, when the temperature at the Civic Center dipped to 36 degrees.

By Tuesday, it was several degrees warmer--with an overnight low of 43 predicted for Central Los Angeles.

The council's action Tuesday permits the homeless to stay in the council chamber and several other spots in and around City Hall from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. daily through Friday, when the council will decide whether to extend the program.

A council committee remained in session past 6 p.m. Tuesday, however, so the homeless had to remain outside a while longer. But by 9 p.m., about 50 street people were bedded down in the middle and side aisles of the marble-columned chamber--some of them enjoying special chicken dinners donated by Chicken George, a nearby fast food restaurant, and the Faithful Central Baptist Church.

One of the first to enter was Sylvia Castro, 23, who was carrying her 3-month-old son, Thomas Ricardo, in her arms. She sank down in the place indicated by one of the monitors appointed to arrange sleeping space and leaned her head against a seat.

"I don't know what's going to become of me," she said.

She said she and her infant had been on the streets since they left the home for unwed mothers in Long Beach where Thomas Richardo was born.

"I can't take a job, I have to take care of the baby," she said. "We stay a day at a time in churches and missions. But at least we've got a place to sleep tonight. . . . "

Ted Hayes, a leader of the downtown homeless community, took charge of security for the housing operation, and applauded the council's action saying, "These people are showing that their hearts are not cold."

"This is symbolic," he said later, just before the group was admitted to the council chamber. "This is historic. This is a political statement--that's why we are going to ask you to be searched tonight for weapons. We don't want to mess up. We don't want anything stupid to happen . . . so if you don't want to be searched for weapons, then you go somewhere else."

'A Good Job So Far'

Paul McGee, who heads the regular City Hall security force, said Hayes' group appeared to be "doing a very good job so far."

Though the council had authorized use of both the north and south lobby entrances to City Hall and other spots, Hayes used only the council chamber and the north lobby, where another 30 sleepers were accommodated. He explained that he did not have enough monitors to guarantee order anywhere else.

About 400 more street people were taken by bus to a city warehouse in the 2800 block of South Alameda Street.

Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates spurned the council's request to also open Parker Center police headquarters, two blocks from City Hall, to the homeless. He labeled the council action a "terrible mistake" that will draw more homeless people to Los Angeles. He also asserted that the vast majority of homeless are "alcoholics and vagrants" who "are homeless because they choose to be homeless."

"Our comparatively mild winters are already a great attraction to thousands of transients," Gates told a press conference. "Opening up public buildings as public shelters will undoubtedly attract thousands more from across the nation."

Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky said Gates' statement " . . . makes Marie Antoinette look like a humanitarian. I guess the chief says 'Let them eat blankets.' "

Liability Explained

Deputy City Atty. Julie Downey advised the council that it could be forced to pay for any injuries suffered by homeless people who take advantage of the shelter.

"If you have a difficult population, a population that brings health problems, behavior problems and those kinds of problems that may lead to personal injury . . . it's clear our exposure to liability increases," Downey said.

But council members argued Tuesday that the need to help the homeless outweighs the liability risks that led to the earlier decision.

"We have a crisis," Councilman Richard Alatorre told his colleagues. "It would be irresponsible for us, using the liability issue alone, as the only reason for us not acting. . . . We have a moral obligation to act."

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