Amid reports of violence and drug-related problems, city officials have temporarily closed a nightly homeless shelter in West Hollywood, saying they intend to reorganize its operations.
"Our thinking was that if we could close it down and bring in some new people (shelter workers) and provide some careful training for those people, it would be advantageous for everybody," City Manager Paul Brotzman said.
The shelter in West Hollywood Park was closed abruptly last Friday after social workers complained to city officials that the situation there had deteriorated and that some shelter workers had expressed concern for their safety.
Thirty-two people housed at the shelter were given vouchers for free accommodations at a Hollywood motel or a nearby YMCA until the shelter reopens March 27, Brotzman said.
"Everyone was taken care of. We didn't leave anyone in the street," he said. "The idea is not to diminish our commitment to the homeless, but to improve it."
The city has operated the temporary shelter from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily for up to 50 people at West Hollywood Park Auditorium. City officials had said they would operate the shelter until a $1.2-million permanent shelter, planned for a warehouse on the city's east side, is opened early next year.
The temporary shelter opened 10 months ago after the City Council approved a midnight-to-6 a.m. curfew in the city's parks, where dozens of homeless people were living. The council imposed rules prohibiting people under the influence of drugs or alcohol from being housed there.
However, Brotzman said some shelter workers "had become lax in enforcing the rules, sending mixed signals to some people" being housed at the shelter.
Others say shelter workers often bent the rules to help people with nowhere else to go, and at times were intimidated by people who threatened to harm them unless they were allowed to enter.
Staff of Four
The shelter has been staffed by two social workers under contract to the city along with two unarmed security guards, city officials said.
"The people at the shelter have been caught in the middle," said Sam Weinstein, an advocate for the homeless. "You can't place the blame on the staff that things have gotten out of control. They've done the best they could under some difficult circumstances."
Others say threats and actual violence involving shelter patrons have increased since the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department three weeks ago began to more strictly enforce the park curfew. City officials had complained that drug dealing and alcohol abuse in West Hollywood Park and Plummer Park were out of control.
"Before (the crackdown), it was a question of if you didn't get into the shelter, there was the possibility of being arrested (for violating the curfew)," social worker Sue Wilcox said. "Now, that's become a probability.
"There's a sense of desperation (among the homeless) that hasn't been there in a long time."
In the first two weeks of the crackdown, sheriff's deputies arrested 16 people in the two parks, most of them for curfew violations and drug- and alcohol-related offenses, sheriff's officials said.
Last week, deputies made 11 more arrests. Eight of those were in West Hollywood Park and included five curfew violations there, said Capt. Rachel Burgess, who supervises the West Hollywood sheriff's station.
Five people were arrested at the shelter shortly after midnight March 1 when a fight inside spilled onto a patio, and several homeless people who were not being housed at the shelter became involved, city officials said.
Two nights later, deputies were called to the auditorium during a meeting of the Planning Commission. Several homeless people, who had assembled under an outdoor patio to escape the rain, had become rowdy, a city employee said.
No one was arrested, and the group dispersed when deputies arrived, according to the employee, who did not want to be identified.
While city officials cite such incidents as evidence of increased tension among the homeless in West Hollywood Park, Weinstein and other homeless advocates say that other problems have also contributed to the restlessness.
City officials, Weinstein said, "promised for many months to provide cots so people wouldn't be forced to sleep on the floor, and it wasn't until two months ago that they got them.
"Now that the cots are available, there's still no system for storing them so that a person is guaranteed of using the same cot he had the night before. That's not a tenable situation."
With the shelter temporarily closed, the number of homeless people encamped in West Hollywood Park during the daytime has decreased dramatically.
"It seems strange looking around out here and seeing non-homeless people outnumbering the homeless," said a park user who did not want to be identified. "I mean, you look up suddenly and they're gone."