Steve (Max) O'Neill usually walks to his job as a part-time custodian at Camp Hollywoodland, a city-run girls' camp in Griffith Park.
For O'Neill, it's about a three-mile jaunt from Riverside Drive in Los Feliz, where, just down from the Mulholland Fountain, he and about a dozen others live in their cars, vans and motor homes.
"It's not so bad--I'm actually very comfortable," O'Neill said Monday evening as he sat in the front seat of the car in which he lives and looked out at the surrounding park. "Who knows? I could stay here forever."
Not according to city officials. The city of Los Angeles soon may enforce parking regulations to oust those who live in their vehicles along Riverside Drive near Los Feliz Boulevard. A request by Griffith Park rangers, supported by the Los Feliz Improvement Assn., for signs prohibiting overnight parking along the three-block strip was being considered late Wednesday. If granted--which officials consider likely--the signs will be posted within a few weeks.
Even if the request is denied, pressure on the car-dwellers is likely to increase, city officials indicated. Since Los Feliz homeowners and officials discussed the problem recently at a meeting about traffic problems, parking enforcement officers twice have patrolled the strip and put warning cards on vehicle windshields, said Roger Gornick, a parking enforcement supervisor for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.
"These are homeless people who have no place and no money, but they've just got to find another place to park their vehicles," Gornick said. "It becomes a problem when you have more and more people there because then it becomes uncontrollable."
The request to prohibit parking from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. was made after rangers, parking officials and Los Feliz homeowners complained that the Riverside strip was becoming a camp for homeless living out of their vehicles. The number of people living along the street has grown, they said--and so has the amount of graffiti, vandalism and destruction of parkland and facilities that line the strip on both sides.
The strip, surrounded by trees, tennis courts and the Griffith Park Cultural Arts Center, for years has been a popular parking spot for the homeless and people with large campers or trucks, said Tom LaBonge, a field deputy for Los Angeles City Councilman John Ferraro, who represents the area.
Rangers and homeowners said they are uncertain whether the car-dwellers--the number of whom on a given night ranges from six to 30, Gornick and others said--are responsible for the area's recent rash of problems. But, they said, restricting overnight parking at least may curb illegal fires, the smell of urine along Riverside Drive's sidewalks and complaints by park patrons.
The car-dwellers "are creating an atmosphere that's really not conducive to the patrons in our parks," said Lucia Ruta, chief park ranger for the Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Department. "We're really sensitive to the homeless situation. But when the complaints start coming in and there's a lot of vandalism, we've got no choice."
But others, including Los Angeles Police Department officers who patrol the area, said they had little indication that the car-dwellers are the culprits.
"All areas of the park have been victims of vandalism, but it's not these homeless people who are committing the vandalism," said Paul Afdahl, senior police patrol officer for Los Feliz and Griffith Park. "They're most often the victims. I've had two incidents where people who have parked there for the night have woken up and found their motor homes covered with graffiti.
"I cannot see, in my personal view, going out there and putting a lot of pressure on these people because that's only going to compound the problem" of homelessness, he said.
Afdahl said he talks with the vehicle residents, most of whom are men, at least once every two weeks. He said he advises them about city shelters, warns them about their safety and urges them to find another place to live. But most cannot afford housing and consider Griffith Park safer than most shelters and other parts of the city, he said.
Parking regulations restrict people from leaving their cars in one spot for more than 72 hours and from abandoning their cars. And the parks department enforces a trespassing ordinance, which prohibits people from entering the park between 10:30 p.m. and 6 a.m. But there is no law against sleeping or living in a vehicle on a public street, Afdahl and other police officials said.
O'Neill, who said he has lived along the street for about a year, said he and others leave periodically and return, or move from one side of the street to the other to meet the 72-hour rule. And they generally are asleep by the time the park closes, he said.