Celebrities and others streamed in from neighboring Hollywood with tales of their own one-time homelessness and tearful pleas for compassion, but in the end it was the up-close observations of two West Hollywood City Council members that restored a canceled food giveaway program.
Treading a political mine field, the council narrowly voted late Monday night to restore its support for the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition giveaway in Plummer Park, which it had voted to dismantle just three weeks ago.
The council voted 3 to 2 to continue funding the program and allow it to remain in the park for at least four months or until another site is found. In an effort to appease neighbors of Plummer Park, the city also committed itself to paying up to $70,000 for additional sheriff's foot patrols in the area and asked the food group to follow up on an offer to provide counseling services at the giveaway each week.
The program, which has received $29,000 in city funding this year, was quietly ended by the council Oct. 16 after the group heard repeated complaints from park staff and neighbors that the heavy concentration of homeless people in the area was causing crime and decay in the park.
The eviction was to have taken place Nov. 1, but the group continued to serve food in the parking lot at the site, using a kitchen at a nearby church.
Publicity about the city's decision to evict the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition from its home of two years suddenly attracted the attention of Hollywood celebrities last week. Many turned out in force Monday, hoping to change the city's mind.
Actor Lou Diamond Phillips and actress Katey Sagal, star of the television program "Married With Children," spoke against the council's decision to end the program. But it appeared that first-hand observations by council members were more important in reversing the eviction.
"I did a surprise visit on Sunday and found it to be different than I expected," said Councilman Paul Koretz, who had fervently supported the program until staff reports on the program changed his mind last month. "I did not feel threatened."
Councilman Steve Schulte, who was praised by the coalition for previously visiting the giveaway, also made a weekend visit. Koretz and Schulte teamed with Councilwoman Helen Albert to restore the program.
Food coalition President Mike Dean had argued to the council in the past that the food giveaway decreases the likelihood of violence and crime by homeless people. On Monday he said the group's only intention in defying the ban was to gain more time to look for alternatives.
"Hallelujah!" Dean said after the decision. "All we asked is that they not stop the program to find another site for it."
While many of those who spoke in favor of the food giveaway were from out of town, more than a dozen West Hollywood neighbors of the park angrily testified that their concerns had been lost in a dazzle of celebrity limelight.
Many opponents grumbled that the program had been extended several times in the past with no improvement at the site. Others complained that observations by movie stars during two-hour visits to the park did not give an accurate picture of the situation there.
"We are tired of the effects of the (food giveaway). You guys can be trendy and then leave," said resident Ed Riney.
Opponents of the program groaned when Koretz and Schulte began making suggestions to prevent problems in the park. Besides the additional police patrols and counseling, Koretz recommended that the food giveaway be moved to the parking lot instead of behind a park building, and also that portable toilets be placed in the park.
Neighbors have complained that food giveaway participants have fouled the park's public bathroom and frequently harassed citizens walking through the park.
The celebrity parade at the hearing may have had little to do with the council's decision, but it certainly caught the attention of visiting television crews.
Among the most dramatic moments was a tearful plea from Joann Carson, a metabolic therapist, telling of her own one-time homelessness in Los Angeles and the importance of extending a helping hand. Carson said she found herself on the streets at age 16 in 1945, without money or a home. She said the kindness of a stranger was the only way she survived, and introduced Alice Davidson, the woman who fed and housed her for three days.
"And in the only way I know how, I would like to pay tribute to Mrs. Davidson," Carson said before announcing that she would hold a four-night candlelight vigil at the park to persuade the city to restore the program.
Tuesday night, after the program had been restored, a few celebrities, including Katey Sagal, showed up at the park. Coalition members were angry that park buildings were still locked but expressed hope the program would get back to normal soon.
"The park staff was so confident that we were being kicked out, they did not even unlock the buildings," said coalition spokesman Chip Ermish.