Derrick and Felecia Green remember last year's Christmas: turkey, a tree and gifts for the children--long before sudden unemployment and eviction placed the family in the ranks of Los Angeles' homeless.
The Greens sat on the floor this week at an Antioch University community room with their two small children, along with about 100 fellow homeless people at a Christmas party sponsored by the Venice-based St. Joseph Center.
"We are looking for somewhere to stay," said Green, who has spent the last two weeks living at a church. "Christmas this year is a long shot."
A few blocks away, down Rose Avenue on the wind-whipped Venice Beach, another group of transients set up a Christmas tree in the gray-white sand. "Merry Christmas" read a banner on one of the tents that serves as shelter for the transients, who vowed to challenge a new ordinance intended to remove them from the beach next month.
Divided Over Homeless
Venice, the oceanside community that is said to have one of the highest concentrations of transients in the county, continues to be divided by bitter debate over what to do with the homeless.
Advocates want to offer more services for the homeless, while some Venice business and property owners oppose the programs, which they say would only attract more transients to the community.
Tensions soared last month, transforming Venice into what some called a veritable battleground: A transient man was shot while foraging for food; the director of St. Joseph, which provides food and counseling services for homeless, received threats and a homeless woman rammed her van into a restaurant whose owner has been critical of the transient population.
Two weeks ago, an elderly man delivering food for the homeless was attacked by an unidentified assailant, police say.
But now, at least temporarily, open hostilities appear to have been quieted somewhat as the factions participate in mediated talks.
The talks, which began Dec. 10, were organized by the county's Human Relations Commission. Two meetings have been held and more are scheduled.
Participants, who say they agreed not to discuss details of the meetings, include: Los Angeles Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who represents Venice; St. Joseph Director Rhonda Meister; Jeffrey Miles of the Venice-Santa Monica Neighborhood Assn., which has protested plans for more services for the homeless, and Michael Dieden of the Venice Action Committee.
"I think people want to find a resolution to the problem (and) are happy to be sitting down, talking to one another, rather than standing up, screaming at each other," said Galanter spokesman Rick Ruiz.
Meister and Miles, usually on the opposite sides of the homeless issue, agreed that holding discussions is positive.
"Getting everybody to sit down and talk is a big step," Miles said. "That's where we're at. We are all sitting down and talking. I suspect we will soon be ready to get to the meat and potatoes of the issues."
Dieden said some residents who have criticized the presence of the homeless may be encouraged by the recent passage of an ordinance, sponsored by Galanter, that outlaws camping on the beach. The ordinance takes effect on Jan. 17, Ruiz said, and police vow to enforce it.
However, on Wednesday, Ted Hayes, an activist who earlier this year led transients on a march through the Westside, called on "the homeless and non-homeless" to join his "tent city" on Venice Beach to make it more difficult for police to make evictions and to force negotiations with the city for another site.
The move to the beach during the last several months by numerous transients, who pitched tents and appeared to be settling in, had incensed some Venice residents and merchants.
That community of beach-dwelling homeless dwindled to about 50 six weeks ago, police say, but has since mushroomed to 150 to 200.
A large portion of the current beach-dwellers are members of Hayes' group, called Justiceville.
Police say that when they begin enforcing the new ordinance next month, they will give the transients ample notice that they must leave or be subject to arrest and confiscation of their possessions.
Some people are predicting a showdown between police who will start evicting the beach-dwellers and those transients who refuse to go. Chances for a confrontation could be heightened by Hayes' call, though he refused to say whether his followers will resist arrest or leave.
City officials hope to avoid a confrontation, saying they reopened a processing center for the transients on the beach this week. It is identical to a program that operated in October, offering job referrals, drug and alcohol counseling and other social services to encourage people to move off the beach, Ruiz said.
"We are starting to offer services again to help them get off the beach so there doesn't have to be a showdown," Ruiz said. "We saw the need (for social service programs) to make sure these people on the beach have some kind of alternative."