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THE Homeless Backlash : Business People and Homeowners Are Pressuring Politicians to Cut Back on Meals and Discourage Loitering as the Numbers of the Needy Increase

October 08, 1989|KENNETH J. GARCIA | Times Staff Writer

As the lines outside the soup kitchens and inside the shelters grow, so do the neighborhood discontent and the political disenchantment.

The problem has grown to the point where homeless advocates and social service workers say political pressure on elected officials is generating a backlash against street people, which is resulting in a reduction of feeding programs and other services.

The effects of the rising unpopularity and overall numbers of the homeless are being felt throughout Los Angeles County, but particularly in the Westside, where the weather, the affluence and a host of social service programs serve as a magnet for a homeless population that probably exceeds 10,000.

In West Hollywood, which budgets more than $2 million for social service programs and is considered among the most tolerant of cities in Los Angeles County, the City Council voted in September to move the community's expanding free-meal program out of a public park. The growing lines had drawn complaints from businesses, residents and senior citizens who said the presence of street people discouraged recreational use of the park.

Several council members also said the coalition should no longer offer a free meal to everyone, suggesting instead restrictions to exclude suspected freeloaders, drug abusers and prostitutes.

Program Scaled Back

In Santa Monica, a popular noontime feeding program in Ocean Park has been cut back by more than 100 meals each day because of neighborhood complaints about the swelling ranks of homeless who sleep in doorways and panhandle outside stores, restaurants and offices.

The mayor of Santa Monica and the president of the city's Chamber of Commerce have called for an increase in police enforcement for street people, asked for a ban on sales of cheap wine and suggested mounting a campaign requesting that the public ignore panhandlers and donate money only to social service groups.

And in Beverly Hills, far from a haven for the homeless, police there have blamed several recent crimes on the growing ranks of the homeless and have asked patrol officers to walk through city parks and keep street people from loitering. The affluent city does not offer any programs for the homeless, preferring instead to donate money to an agency that provides food, shelter and clothing outside Beverly Hills' boundaries.

"The frustration is growing because the numbers (of street people) are getting so big that you can't even begin to make a dent in it," said Susan Dempsey, executive director of Step Up On 2nd, an agency that provides referral, counseling and housing services for the mentally ill in Santa Monica. "It's created a lot of tension and the pot is boiling. People are saying that we've had enough, and they're getting angry."

Eligibility Issue

Some homeless workers go even further, saying that Westside politicians, despite their generally liberal outlook, are trying to distance themselves from homeless issues. They contend that suggestions to regulate who is eligible for free food, such as have been made by some members of the West Hollywood City Council, skirt the real problem of how best to provide meals to hungry street people.

"A few years ago the city asked the community to come up with a way to provide food to the hungry because they realized the need for it," said Michael Dean, head of the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition. "But homelessness and feeding the hungry just (aren't) trendy now. The people on the City Council asking for restrictions are, in effect, taking food out of the mouths of hundreds of people."

Volunteer workers for the West Hollywood food program are upset because the council moved the free-meal program to Plummer Park from a local church more than two years ago to make it easier for the city to regulate. Rather than continue to meet the needs of the growing homeless population, the workers say, the council is reneging on its promise.

Second Forced Move

"This will be the second time they have thrown us out of somewhere, and they're not going to get rid of a political problem just by moving it somewhere else," said Ted Landreth, a volunteer. "I think its just a matter of people not wanting to be bothered, and I can't understand why (politicians) just cave in and pretend that, by moving the program, everything is going to be OK all of a sudden."

However, local officials and business leaders see it differently. They said that the cities are being unfairly overburdened with street peopleand that they are doing their best to make up for the lack of county, state and federal funds.

Sandra Jacoby Klein, a psychotherapist and member of West Hollywood's Human Service Commission, said the main problem facing municipalities with a tradition of providing programs for the needy is that the lines are growing beyond the cities' capacity to help.

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