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L.A. Opens City Hall as Shelter for Homeless : Council Weighs Liability Risk Against Deaths of 2 Street People During Recent Cold Snap

January 21, 1987|RICHARD SIMON | Times Staff Writer

Spurred by the deaths last week of two street people, apparently 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 for the homeless, citing the potential liability risk to the city.

Since Bradley's comments, at least two street people have died of apparent hypothermia; autopsies are pending. City officials have come under harsh criticism for failing to provide shelter for the homeless during the cold spell, which began last Thursday and is expected to continue for a few days.

Tuesday's action 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.

The council remained in session past 6 p.m. Tuesday, however, so the homeless had to remain outside a while longer.

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 choose to live their lives in the streets.

"Our comparatively mild winters are already a great attraction to thousands of transients," Gates said at 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.' "

Ted Hayes, a leader of the downtown homeless community, applauded the council's action.

"These people are showing that their hearts are not cold," he said.

Council members argued Tuesday that the need to help the homeless outweighs the liability risks that led to Bradley's earlier decision. The mayor is in Africa on a trade mission this week and unavailable for comment. Bradley's press secretary, Ali Webb, said that she told the mayor by telephone of the council's action and that he concurred.

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.

'We Have a Crisis'

"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.

"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."

"Forget about the risks," Councilman Ernani Bernardi told his colleagues. "Every time you walk into City Hall, the city assumes a liability."

"What did we do for the sponsors of the Street Scene?" Bernardi asked. "We provided them with a $30,000 insurance policy. . . . The real street scene is what happens every night in downtown, in Van Nuys, in Venice and in many other areas of the city. That's the real street scene in . . . Los Angeles, and that's the one that doesn't have any glamour attached to it. It's not a constituency. I guess they (the homeless) don't have any votes."

Yaroslavsky implied criticism of Bradley when he asked Deputy Mayor Grace M. Davis if the mayor had examined whether the city should provide shelter to the homeless, notwithstanding the liability questions.

"Has there been any initiative in your office to say, 'What are the risks of assuming the liability?' " Yaroslavsky asked. "Has there been any conversation about the mayor recommending that we assume the liability and let the chips fall where they may?"

Mayor Defended

"No, that's why we're here today," Davis responded. "We thought it should be discussed in council."

Webb defended Bradley's initial reluctance.

"When the mayor left for Africa early Saturday morning, there was no sense of emergency that we have now," Webb said, adding that no deaths had been reported then.

Webb noted that a proposal to open city buildings to house the homeless has been languishing in one of the council's committees since March, 1986, adding that "the state of emergency today moved the council into action."

E. Brooks Treidler, assistant general manager of the Department of General Services, which is in charge of city buildings, said the facilities made available by the council should shelter about 250 people.

In the council chamber, the homeless will be allowed to stretch out on the floor and on the wooden benches, where the public sits for council meetings.

Besides the chamber, people will be allowed to sleep in the lobbies inside the Main Street entrance to City Hall and City Hall South and the covered patios at the Main Street and Spring Street entrances to City Hall and between City Hall East and City Hall South.

Expects No Problems

Treidler said he has ordered extra security but expects no problems.

Portable toilets were set up and wind shields were installed in the patio areas.

The council Tuesday also called on the city's Housing Authority Commission to hold an emergency meeting to discuss providing shelter for the homeless at 22 public housing projects throughout Los Angeles.

Leila Gonzalez-Correa, executive director of the authority, said that if the commission approves her recommendation, as expected, they could start housing 200 people in projects as early as Saturday.

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