At exactly 6 a.m., a security guard flipped a light switch, and as if on cue, Henderson (Papa) Hayes bellowed out the last stanza of the national anthem.
From their makeshift beds on the floor of the West Hollywood Park Auditorium, Hayes' sleepy homeless companions sent up a plea for silence.
"Come on, stuff it," someone shouted.
In the next few minutes, the 16 men and two women removed their meager belongings and headed to the showers at the park pool, leaving social worker Donna Cox with little to do except make sure everyone had a towel.
"Everything has gone as smoothly as anyone could have expected," Cox said of the auditorium's conversion last week to a nightly emergency shelter for the homeless.
The new program will allow up to 50 people to sleep in the auditorium--where City Council meetings also are held--from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., and use the pool showers from 6 to 7:30 a.m. daily.
The council took the unusual step to reduce the burden of a long-debated plan approved two weeks ago to close the city's parks--where an estimated 100 to 150 homeless live--from midnight to 6 a.m.
It is not certain what will happen to the majority of the homeless after authorities, who have been posting signs and warning park dwellers of the change, start enforcing the new law this weekend.
"Maybe others will go elsewhere, and some may choose to live on the streets--outside the parks," said Jodi Curlee, the city's social services administrator. "I think a lot of us are waiting to see just how things are going to develop."
She expects the shelter to reach its assigned limit as soon as word of its whereabouts spreads on the streets, she said.
West Hollywood is already committed to trying to develop a $1-million-plus comprehensive center for the homeless, which officials say may open in a year if negotiations to lease a La Brea Avenue warehouse succeed.
But with authorities and residents complaining about a dramatic increase in crime in the city's parks, and with many of the homeless having nowhere else to go, the council decided to make the auditorium available.
"It was a logical compromise," Curlee said. "The council wanted to be responsive to the community's concerns about increased crime and at the same time show compassion for the homeless."
Citing a 46% increase in serious crime in Plummer and West Hollywood parks from the previous year, officials of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department last December began a push to restrict the hours the parks are open.
Authorities say that Plummer Park, which faces Santa Monica Boulevard on the city's east side, has been a notorious haven for drug sellers, prostitutes and others who have often preyed upon the estimated 100 people living there.
The council favored developing a permanent shelter in March, but balked at restricting the park hours until a temporary shelter could be opened.
Staged Silent Protest
After the Sheriff's Department began arresting people for violating a long-ignored 3-to-5 a.m. curfew, several homeless people staged a silent protest before the City Council, and city officials asked the sheriff's deputies not to arrest curfew violators.
But two weeks ago, after hearing several neighbors of Plummer Park complain of finding syringes in their yards and in park sandboxes, the council voted to restrict the hours.
"We're talking about the homeless and crime in the parks as two separate issues that have unfortunately become entwined," said Judy Abdo, an aide to Mayor Helen Albert. "Unfortunately, in some people's minds, the homeless have taken a bad rap for being responsible for crimes when they have usually been the victims."
Capt. Mark Squiers of the Sheriff's Department said the situation in Plummer Park became "increasingly chaotic" after the decision not to arrest curfew violators.
Squiers said that after city officials asked to relax enforcement of the 3-to-5 a.m. curfew, "what we had were wholesale numbers of all sorts of nefarious characters taking advantage of what they considered to be a free zone."
Burglaries Up 61%
Serious crime increased 9% and burglaries were up 61% citywide in May compared to April, he said, "largely as the result of incidents occurring in and near Plummer Park."
Meanwhile, some residents and merchants are concerned that the opening of the emergency shelter may swell West Hollywood Park's homeless population and lead to more of the same problems long associated with Plummer Park.
"I believe everyone who is informed about the problem is supportive of the shelter," community activist Martha Melinda said, "but we will be anxious to see that some of Plummer's problems aren't transferred over here."
Melinda, a volunteer active in promoting poetry readings and other events in West Hollywood Park, said that the park's future may be at a critical point, "since it has only been in the last year or so that families have started to really use the park again."