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Running on Empty : Rising Number of Street People Confounds Communities Whose Resources Are in Short Supply

August 23, 1987|ALAN CITRON | Times Staff Writer

In the historic Fairfax District of West Los Angeles, where the strictest of Old World standards still apply, Morris Siegel is painfully out of place.

He has a habit of falling asleep on busy street corners and he keeps a shopping cart packed full of cardboard at his side. His ill-fitting clothes are filthy and his weathered face is obscured by a mangy gray beard and a baseball cap.

'Used to Be Better'

His thoughts do not merely wander; they are derailed with startling swiftness. Yet he occasionally gets himself on track. "Things used to be better," Siegel, 70, said last week as his sat in the heart of the largely Orthodox Jewish area. "They weren't as blocked up as they are today."

Morris Siegel and thousands of other homeless people like him on the Westside are still waiting for things to get better. Several years after large numbers of vagrants started appearing on street corners, in alleys and in parks, they are learning that an affluent society remains woefully unprepared for them.

The down and out in Beverly Hills can still be found sleeping on benches and in alleys. On Hollywood's Walk of Fame a tourist is far more likely to spot a homeless person than a celebrity. Neighboring West Hollywood continues to receive a rash of complaints about vagrants harassing elderly people. Derelicts hold sway over some of Santa Monica's most fashionable parks. And Venice Beach has become the site of a multicolored tent city for the homeless.

If anything, officials say the vagrant population on the Westside is growing and that the attendant problems are becoming more serious.

"We provide a whole range of services. But we need more of everything," said Barbara Stinchfield, community development manager for Santa Monica.

Paltry Portion of Funds

Officials say there are as many as 5,000 homeless people on the Westside but fewer than 500 emergency shelter beds to serve them. Outreach workers are unable to handle even a fraction of the cases. And the Westside receives a paltry portion of Los Angeles County funding for the homeless, even though it has the second highest concentration of vagrants outside of downtown Skid Row.

One study has shown that the Santa Monica-Venice area, which has the highest number of homeless people on the Westside, receives only $5 million of the $184 million spent by the county on homeless services each year.

As time passes, the homeless on the Westside, as many as half of whom may be mentally ill, are becoming somewhat rooted in the communities. A recent police report about a vagrant viciously attacking a dog called the homeless person a "resident" of Beverly Hills. In Venice, a vagrant named Chuck Sladky holds a top position on a homeless task force.

'A Creative Community'

Sladky said he is like any other resident active in the community: He has a stake in Venice and wants to make things better. "This is a creative community," he said recently. "We solve our own problems here."

Some vagrants try to maintain a sense of self-esteem. Thomas J. Wasserberg, gaunt and sunburned after spending five years in and around Venice, called homelessness a myth. "The term homelessness is vicious propaganda," Wasserberg said, just before getting involved in a bitter screaming match with a merchant. "America is everybody's home."

Yet the Wasserbergs of the world are still largely regarded as pariahs by more conventional segments of the community. Santa Monica City Councilwoman Christine E. Reed said residents constantly complain about the homeless.

"There is real hatred in the hearts of many citizens," Reed said. "The people who live here don't understand why we allow this to continue."

West Hollywood Mayor Alan Viterbi said he hears the same complaints. Los Angeles City Councilman Michael Woo, whose district includes Hollywood, said he gets mixed reactions from residents. "Some people think that the homeless should be taken care of in areas far away from their neighborhoods," Woo said. "Others are willing to accept far more responsibility for them."

Mary Lee Gray, an aide to Los Angeles County Supervisor Deane Dana, who represents the coastal area, said the number of homeless people is increasing throughout Southern California because of the state's favorable climate and liberal reputation. The Westside is especially popular for its beaches and easy bus access to Skid Row. Local agencies try to coordinate services, but Gray said the task has become overwhelming.

In frustration people from different levels of government tend to blame one another.

Survey of Homeless

"The City of Los Angeles is doing nothing" on the Westside, Gray said. "They are putting all of their money into Skid Row."

"We definitely think that the county should be doing more," said Jodi Curlee, social services administrator for West Hollywood. "We need to work as a group."

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