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On City Hall Lawn : Councilman's Idea to House the Homeless

June 25, 1989|TRACY WILKINSON | Times Staff Writer

First, William H. Jennings, a Santa Monica city councilman, had a strange idea: Move the homeless to the front lawn of City Hall.

Now, Jennings has a strange ally: colorful activist Ted Hayes.

Hayes, who attracted considerable publicity last year by organizing a tent city on Venice beach, wants to put the homeless in igloo-like structures somewhere on public Santa Monica land, maybe even the front lawn of City Hall.

Is anybody taking this seriously? Perhaps not yet, but the two men are not deterred.

Hayes and Jennings met over lunch near Jennings' Century City law office last week. Hayes had heard about the Santa Monica councilman's proposal to clear the city's parks of homeless by moving them to City Hall.

'Getting Overrun'

And Hayes, never shy when it comes to seizing an opportunity, told Jennings he could help.

The way Jennings sees it, Santa Monica does a lot for the homeless: numerous feeding programs, some shelter, some health care. But, he believes, Santa Monica is in fact being punished for its generosity: The number of homeless roaming the city's streets and camping in the city's parks is growing dramatically, while few long-term solutions are being found. Jennings says parents, children and the elderly are increasingly afraid to use the parks.

"We are really getting overrun here in Santa Monica, largely because we actually do care about homeless people," Jennings said.

"It's not leading to any solution, what we're doing. All we're doing is warehousing people," he said. "It doesn't move anybody out of . . . the homelessness syndrome."

So his proposal, which he will present to fellow council members next month, is to begin steering the homeless back toward mainstream life. The first step is to move about 100 of them to tents and cots on City Hall's front lawn.

His proposal also includes an order to police and city prosecutors to enforce a ban on overnight sleeping in the parks. That law and other minor nonviolent crimes such as public drunkenness and trespassing are rarely enforced when committed by the homeless.

Jennings believes the lawn, next to the Police Department and across Main Street from the RAND Corp., is an appropriate place because it will serve as a daily, constant reminder to government officials that it is their responsibility to do something about the homeless.

'Big Statement'

"It makes a statement, a big statement," he said.

Jennings said the homeless should not be allowed to live on the lawn indefinitely. He sees the set-up as a "phase-one staging area" as the homeless begin to find jobs, places to live or organizations to take care of them.

Hayes, meanwhile, offered to help organize the lawn community, set up security and screen the homeless who are taken there.

In addition, Hayes is proposing a pilot project with a handful of homeless who would be housed in curved, geodesic domes like the one he says he inhabits in South-Central Los Angeles. He is suggesting the domes, which house two people and measure about 14 feet by 9 feet, be set up temporarily on the lawn, then moved to other vacant sites in Santa Monica--as well as other cities.

"This should not be done for a long time, just long enough to show the nation that it can be done," Hayes said. "It's got to remain controllable. We don't want an urban campground."

Hayes met with City Atty. Robert M. Myers on Thursday to discuss his idea, and he said he plans to seek support from other City Council members.

Take Up Too Much Space

Jennings said he didn't think the domes would work at City Hall because they would take up too much space. Myers said he didn't foresee a legal problem with setting up domes on the lawn or on other city-owned land.

"We need creative solutions to the homeless problem," Myers said.

So far, few people in City Hall seem to be taking Jennings' proposal seriously.

City Councilman David Finkel, who follows homeless issues, said Jennings may mean well, but trying to ban transients from the city's parks is neither enforceable, practical nor fair. And the front lawn of City Hall is not an appropriate site, he contends.

"You don't just take a bunch of homeless people and stick them somewhere," Finkel said. "Any program has to be carefully thought out with social service providers. . . . It has to be screened, controlled, monitored. . . . I don't know whether he's given any thought to that."

Similarly, Councilwoman Judy Abdo, also active in homeless issues, expressed certain skepticism.

"Clearly, the city has to have a response" to a growing homeless problem and growing community fears, Abdo said. "What that response will be, I don't know."

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