Hughes House, the Hollywood AIDS hospice that is fighting a recent city zoning decision, is waging another battle--this one, hospice officials say, against neighbors who have distributed "misinformation," including literature that claims that AIDS can be contracted through mosquito bites and sneezes and that homosexual men are distorting the truth about the disease.
"Frankly, we didn't expect people to place much credibility in those kinds of statements, but it is clear that they are having an impact somewhere," said Ron Wolff, executive director of Hospice Los Angeles/Long Beach, the agency that runs Hughes House. "Some neighbors are relying on this misinformation in supporting the effort to close down Hughes House."
Several neighbors said they are not attempting to spread fear of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, and their complaints are confined to the zoning issue. Segments of the controversial literature have been blown out of proportion, said the neighborhood leader who circulated it.
A city zoning administrator, deciding in favor of the neighbors, last month ruled that Hughes House--Los Angeles' only AIDS hospice--violates the city zoning code. If the decision is upheld on appeal, Hughes House could be forced to shut down.
So hospice supporters, who say they wanted to lead a "low-profile life," are changing their tactics and going public.
Wednesday, several dozen members of a group called Friends of Hughes House demonstrated on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall to protest the zoning decision and deliver a sheaf of about 30 letters to Mayor Tom Bradley in support of the hospice.
With about 15 reporters and cameramen in tow, the group's leader, Marc Berman, marched into the mayor's office and asked to see Bradley, who was not in. Berman did get to see Deputy Mayor Grace Davis, who accepted the letters. Berman asked that the mayor "take a leadership position," and Davis replied that Bradley--who has not publicly stated his position on the issue--"has been on top of this from the very beginning."
In addition to staging the protest, Friends of Hughes House has distributed a press packet charging a local neighborhood group with distributing "inaccurate and misleading information" about Hughes House and the spread of AIDS. In conjunction with Hospice Los Angeles/Long Beach, the group has also distributed a rebuttal of the zoning decision.
Hospice officials say neighbors provided the city with "false information" about the type of care administered at Hughes House, and that influenced the zoning administrator. Chief Zoning Administrator Franklin P. Eberhard likened the facility to a hospital, and therefore ruled it illegal in the single-family neighborhood.
In response, Erika Scarano, president of the Neighborhood Action Group (NAG), said she and her organization have been misquoted, slandered and verbally harassed by Hughes House supporters.
Scarano said she has been made a target because she brought the literature containing the controversial statements about the spread of AIDS to one of her group's meetings. But she said she has never espoused such views and simply made "educational and informational" pamphlets available to whoever wanted to pick one up.
"They call NAG 'Nazi Aryan Group' and 'Neighbors Against Gays,' " Scarano said. "We've worked with the gay organizations for seven years, and we have never tolerated any kind of prejudice. This is the first time I have encountered a group that is bent on destroying my reputation."
The charges on both sides mark an escalation of a battle that has divided the Hollywood neighborhood called Spaulding Square, an eight-block section of single-family houses between Orange Grove and Spaulding avenues, bounded on the north by Sunset Boulevard and on the south by Fountain Avenue.
In the middle lies Hughes House, which has operated out of a rented home at 1308 N. Ogden Ave. for the past five months. The hospice accommodates up to five residents, providing housing for AIDS victims in their dying days.
Neighborhood groups, including NAG and the Spaulding Square Coalition--which was founded to fight the hospice--say Hughes House conforms neither to the city zoning code nor to the single-family residential character of their community. They have been diligent in their opposition; to record activity outside the hospice, coalition members have kept written logs and taken photographs that were submitted to the zoning administrator.
Lillian Roberts, who filed the initial zoning appeal with her husband, Ralph, said the neighbors are trying to stick to the zoning issue. "We are all very caring and sorry about all of this, but R-1 (the neighborhood's single-family zoning designation) is the thing that prevents them from being there."
But Hughes House and its supporters say the dispute runs deeper than zoning.