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Trouble in Santa Monica Paradise : Tension Rises Over Homeless in Park

June 26, 1988|CHRISTOPHER KRUEGER | Times Staff Writer

For Rebecca Urias, Palisades Park is a godsend: a convenient place where she can take her 20-month-old baby on walks.

Urias and her daughter, Rebecca Jr., are park regulars who visit the 2-mile, tree-lined promenade along the Santa Monica coast for at least an hour every day.

"I feel safe in this park," Urias said as she jogged after her child last week. "She knows the other babies" who come to the park.

The pair are among the hundreds of thousands of visitors to this scenic location atop a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean every year. On any afternoon, senior citizens play cards at picnic tables and mothers push their young children in strollers, while joggers and walkers trot along the grassy paths. Buses occasionally stop to unload tourists.

National Recognition

As a testimony to the popularity of the area, Modern Maturity, a national magazine for the elderly, recently picked Palisades Park as one of the 10 best walks in the United States.

"Unlike other shore walks, you get to see from a much higher perspective. You see the beach down below as in a typical shoreline walk, as well as the trees along the way," said Gary Yanker, an author of several books on the benefits of walking, who ranked the park.

But a recent report by the Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau said Palisades Park is suffering from its success. Constant foot traffic has worn some of the grass thin, and signs have become weather beaten. And the visitors bureau says transients who congregate in the park have frightened some regulars away.

"I do believe there is a certain amount of neglect (by the city government)," said Beverly Moore, executive director of the visitors bureau.

Improvement Study

However, Moore said she is encouraged by the allocation of $60,000 in the city's fiscal year 1988-89 budget for a study of ways to improve the park. As part of the study, consultants will examine landscaping alternatives and increased lighting to make the park safer at night.

Besides paying for the study, the city budget has money to make two of the five park rangers full-time employees, said Donald T. Arnett, director of the Recreation and Parks Department. The Camera Obscura, an attraction that uses the same principles as a periscope to provide a panoramic mirror image of the park, also will be repaired soon, he said.

Arnett said some of the worn-out grass at the south end of the park is being resodded.

Because of its concern about the number of homeless people in the area, the visitors bureau recommended in its report that volunteers who serve free meals in the park be encouraged to move their operations elsewhere. It also called on the city to consider enacting special ordinances for the park that would prohibit sleeping or loitering there.

Moore said the intent of her organization's "working paper" is not to chase homeless people out of the park. "Instead, we want to prevent that group from dominating and scaring off the other people," she said.

Suggestion Criticized

Although such policy changes would require City Council action, the suggestions immediately drew fire from Mona LaVine, who has coordinated efforts to feed the homeless in the park since 1986. Her organization, Family Assistance Involving the Homeless, serves about 150 people in Palisades Park five days a week.

"I think they have as much right to be in a public park as anyone else. I don't think they should be (moved) somewhere else because they don't look right," LaVine said.

The volunteers "would like to be out of there, too. But we'd like to be out of there because the problem of homelessness has been solved, not because it looks bad for visitors," she said.

One homeless man, John Martin, said homeless people come to the park because of the hazards of living on the street in downtown Los Angeles. He said that homeless people would gather in the park regardless of whether the feeding program stayed there.

"It's Boy Scouts compared to downtown," Martin said. "It's like a choice between living in Vietnam or Waikiki."

'They're Dangerous'

Nevertheless, Leonard Gross, a member of the city's Commission on Older Americans, defended the intent of the visitors bureau proposal at a commission hearing last week. He argued that the presence of the homeless prevents him and his wife from strolling in Palisades Park after dark.

"There is a class of the homeless I call hobos. They're bums. . . . They're dangerous. We've had many muggings there. We don't walk there anymore because its dangerous," Gross said.

But Sgt. Barney Melekian of the Santa Monica police said crime in the park has decreased slightly over the past six or seven years.

"Obviously, there's a certain tension there between the presence of homeless and the presence of residents and tourists. But I think things have found a happy balance," Melekian said.

Horse Patrol

A horse patrol began a month ago in the park after police departments across the country that use horses reported decreases in crime rates and increased feelings of safety among the public, Melekian said. Santa Monica police have seen "a radical drop off in calls for service" since the equestrian units began, he said.

For his part, author Yanker said he thought the wide variety of people using the park was a point in its favor. "As you walk along, you see people of various socioeconomic backgrounds using the park," he said.

And many Palisades Park regulars believe the place is incomparable, no matter what the problems. Jack Ramirez, a pipe fitter who commutes to the park from Venice, put it this way: "I like the scenery. It's peaceful."

One woman, who didn't want to give her name, said: "There's the ocean, this beautiful walk, the trees and the grass. Where could you find a better place?"

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