Santa Monica's council members agree that the city should provide shelter for the homeless on dangerously cold nights, and they will try to decide on Tuesday where the homeless should sleep and whether shelter should be offered throughout the winter.
The resurgence of council debate on the homeless comes in the wake of the January deaths of four street people in the Los Angeles area during a cold snap that brought night temperatures to near freezing. The unusual cold prompted the cities of West Hollywood and Los Angeles to open their city halls and other city facilities to the homeless for several nights.
Los Angeles went a step further on Jan. 21 when the council voted to open an abandoned city building for use as a shelter for up to 90 days.
Recently the Santa Monica council, at the urging of Councilman David Finkel, authorized City Manager John Jalili to open a city building for use as an overnight shelter on cold nights. The council's action was designed to give officials time to develop a permanent severe weather shelter program.
A report to the Santa Monica council outlined tentative plans for two programs: a 90-day winter shelter and an emergency plan for use when the weather took a turn for the worse.
The 90-day shelter, which the report suggests be placed in the Memorial Park gym, would house up to 50 people. Only homeless people referred to the program by social service agencies such as the Salvation Army would be able to sleep in the gym.
"The hope is to pick people that could be helped the most and get them on relief or get them a job," Finkel said.
Social service agencies would screen shelter candidates and reject those who carry weapons, use drugs or alcohol or are not likely to get along in a group setting, said Barbara Stinchfield, manager for community development in the city's Department of Community and Economic Development.
The report recommends opening the Memorial Park gym to selected street people between the hours of 10:30 p.m. and 7:30 a.m. when the gym is not used by the public. The plan would cost $28,493, which would pay for a shelter director, an unarmed security guard and supplies.
Stinchfield said Memorial Park's gym was chosen because it has showers, a large area that can be used as a sleeping room and is near a Salvation Army free breakfast program.
But council members Christine E. Reed, William H. Jennings, Alan Katz and Herb Katz have voiced concern about the selection of the Memorial Park gym for use as a shelter.
"I am very much opposed to having the Memorial Park facility used as a homeless shelter," Reed said. "We've already essentially given away two parks to the homeless, Palisades and Lincoln parks."
'Send Negative Message'
And the gym "is heavily used by young people and minority people," Reed said. Housing people overnight in the park's gym would send "a negative message" to the city's minority community, she said.
Jennings is also skeptical about the use of Memorial Park as a shelter. "This would be a substantial expansion of beds" for the homeless in Santa Monica, he said.
Santa Monica spends $800,000 a year on programs for the homeless, Stinchfield said. Part of that funding helps private social service groups provide about 40 beds for homeless people in the city.
"I am concerned that (the 90-day program) would act as a magnet for more homeless people," Jennings said. "We do not have a duty to take care of everybody under the sun that wants to take advantage of Santa Monica's programs."
Alan Katz said he does not oppose the 90-day program but is not sure it should be placed in Memorial Park. "I want to weigh what kind of impact this will have on the neighborhood," he said. "What happens in the morning? Are they just going to wander down Pico Boulevard and hang out, or will they be in programs designed to help them?"
As for the program itself, he said, "If this is a system that will not take away from the community but will help these people in need, then it is a terrific program. If we are going to spend $800,000 dealing with the homeless we should do so as effectively as possible."
Herb Katz said that rather than setting up a 90-day program, the city should "study getting some funds and possibly purchasing or building a building" to shelter street people.
"The 90-day program does not solve a thing" because at the end of the program the participants will be back on the streets, he said. "If we purchased a building I could see doing it on a permanent basis."
Mayor James P. Conn said he had nothing specific to say about the program.
Finkel said he supports the creation of a three-month shelter but is willing to consider other locations besides Memorial Park.
But "thus far," he said, "the city staff has said that Memorial Park is the only place that meets the criteria" for a shelter.
Councilman Dennis Zane could not be reached for comment.
Also outlined in the report is a plan to provide emergency overnight shelter for homeless people during rainstorms or when the temperature drops below 44 degrees.
People in need of overnight shelter would be referred by social service agencies or the police to the east room of the Civic Auditorium. If that room is rented for the evening, an emergency shelter would be set up at the Miles Playhouse in Lincoln Park. But Jalili said the city is looking for a third site because the playhouse does not meet seismic safety codes.
The report states that the council would have to approve about $20,000 to fund the severe weather shelter program for 45 nights a year.