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Homeless Find a Place to Hang Their Woes

January 25, 1987|TRACEY KAPLAN | Times Staff Writer

Joseph Berdeen, a 23-year-old transient, sat cross-legged on the wood floor of the West Hollywood Park Auditorium and celebrated spending a rare night indoors out of the cold.

"Before this opened, I was sleeping in a cardboard box," said Berdeen, who has been homeless since he was 16.

The auditorium, which is used for City Council meetings and recreation classes, was converted briefly last week into a temporary shelter for about 20 homeless people.

Berdeen said he appreciated the warmth of the hall. "I feel safe here," he said. "Sometimes when I'm on the street, I'm so scared someone will come along and slice me up that I wake up crying."

Reacted to Recent Deaths

The West Hollywood City Council, reacting to the recent weather-related deaths of four street people in Los Angeles, voted 4 to 1 Tuesday to open the auditorium from Wednesday through Friday night. The emergency action was taken a day after the Los Angeles City Council opened its chambers to the homeless.

West Hollywood officials will evaluate the use of the auditorium as a shelter at Monday's council meeting.

"I'd like to see this become a permanent shelter," said Councilwoman Helen Albert, who introduced the motion to set up the temporary shelter. "Better to use this great, big hall, which is empty at night, than to give only a few of these people vouchers and send them to hotels where they get mugged."

Councilman John Heilman, who cast the only vote against the action, criticized the council's decision as hasty.

"This is just a quick fix for a much larger problem," Heilman said. "I understand the emotional appeal because I feel it too, but we shouldn't have ignored all the work we've done in the last few months to study this problem."

Created Homeless Project

Heilman was referring to the Homeless Project, which the council created in September to develop case files on the city's transients so they can be referred to general relief, drug and alcohol counseling, and mental health programs. Project coordinator Jodi Curlee said about 120 street people have been helped.

Heilman also said he was concerned that the council's decision could lead to liability problems for the city and to increased crime.

"There are a number of homeless in the West Hollywood area who have alcohol, drug and criminal problems," Heilman said. "It doesn't seem very well thought out to me to put them together in one room."

No disturbances were reported Wednesday and Thursday nights at the shelter. Four private security guards, hired by the city at a cost of $320 per night, watched as the homeless signed liability waivers at the door before entering the auditorium.

"If I was representing a homeless person suing the city, the first thing I'd do is say he wasn't competent when he signed the waiver," said Heilman, who is an attorney.

"Just because you're homeless doesn't mean you can't read or write," countered Leed Hobbs, a transient who works for the Homeless Project. "I think everyone here understands the rules and the waiver just fine."

Blankets donated by the Salvation Army were arranged into bedrolls on the auditorium floor, and the street people sipped hot chocolate and soup.

Berdeen said he didn't know what he was going to do when the shelter closed. "We just take it day by day. To think about the future is too depressing," he said.

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