When authorities began enforcing a midnight-to-6 a.m. curfew in West Hollywood's parks last week, officials expected many of the estimated 100 to 150 homeless people living in them to seek refuge in an emergency shelter provided by the city.
But a week after the West Hollywood Park Auditorium opened to accommodate up to 50 people from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily, no more than 25 of the homeless people have stayed there on any night, leaving surprised city officials at a loss to explain why.
"I thought our problem by now would be having more people than we knew what to do with," social worker Tom West said. "I don't think any of us expected this."
Besides being left to wonder why so few of the homeless people have accepted the city's offer of shelter, officials were just as hard-pressed to explain where most of the park dwellers went once sheriff's deputies began enforcing the much-debated curfew last Saturday.
"I can tell you where they're not," said Lt. Don Mauro of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. "They're not in the parks."
Mauro said the few curfew violators deputies have encountered since Saturday were "in each instance simply told to leave," and no one was arrested.
"The word has gotten out. There's hardly anyone out there after hours anymore. The parks are empty after midnight, and that's the way we want it to stay," he said.
Citing a dramatic increase in serious crime in the parks, the Sheriff's Department campaigned since last December to restrict the hours the parks are allowed to remain open.
However, it wasn't until last month that the City Council relented, after hearing residents near Plummer Park between Fountain Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard on the city's east side, complain that crime in and around the park was out of hand.
Authorities say Plummer Park has been a notorious haven for drug sellers, prostitutes and others who have often preyed upon the estimated 100 homeless people living there.
As a gesture to Plummer's homeless and another two dozen people living in West Hollywood Park, the council took the unusual step of opening the auditorium--where City Council meetings also are held--as an emergency shelter. The council also asked the Sheriff's Department to delay enforcing the new law until park dwellers could be notified.
As part of their efforts to rehabilitate Plummer Park, city officials also want to relocate a food distribution program that operates in the park, because they say the program attracts alcohol and drug abusers in addition to the 150 homeless people the program is intended to serve daily.
Move Food Group
On Tuesday, the council directed city staff to work with the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition to find another location. The city pays the nonprofit group $15,000 to provide 50,000 brown bag meals a year at the park.
West Hollywood is already committed to trying to develop a more than $1 million shelter for the homeless, and is negotiating a lease for a warehouse on La Brea Avenue that it hopes to convert and open as a shelter a year from now.
Besides being able to sleep on the auditorium's hardwood floors, those using the emergency shelter are allowed to use the showers at the park pool from 6 to 7:30 a.m. daily.
To gain access to the shelter, a person must be enrolled in the city's Homeless Program, which includes alcohol and drug abuse counseling. To enroll newcomers, and to ensure that no alcohol or drugs are brought on the premises, the shelter is staffed by a social worker and two security guards.
In addition, sheriff's deputies routinely monitor the shelter to "see that everything is going smoothly," West said. "Thus far, there have been very few problems. I think only about three people have had to be ejected for being intoxicated.
Expect to Reach Limit
"Why more aren't coming is a mystery at this point. But we still expect to reach our (assigned) limit (of 50) after there has been more time for word to spread."
However, several homeless people interviewed at Plummer Park who had counted themselves among the ranks of the nighttime regulars at the park before last Saturday, expressed a different view.
"I don't think too many people from over here are gonna go over to the shelter," said a man who said his name was Peter. "We've been hassled by the sheriff's (deputies) so much for so long, you know we're not gonna go over there (to a shelter that is) across the street from the sheriff's station."
His companion, an 18-year-old named Dawn, said she and several friends had "lived in the park off and on for several years," but that since the new curfew, she has been staying at a friend's apartment.
"What's happening is that a lot of (the homeless) are just going outside the park a ways, sleeping in abandoned houses, or on construction sites, or behind bushes in people's yards around here, that's all," she said.
Meanwhile, some residents near the park were giving the curfew mixed reviews.
"I can't see much difference," said Granger Hines, who has lived on Vista Avenue next to Plummer Park for three years. "I came in last night from a trip and found used condoms and other stuff I won't mention in my garage where people had been."
Martha Jarrell, whose apartment is also next to the park, was more optimistic.
"I think the overall situation may have improved since last Saturday," she said. "I notice when I walk my dog in the mornings around 7 or 8 there aren't nearly the number of people congregated in the park as there used to be. . . . Before, even at that hour, people were all over the place."