The image of a transient man choking the life out of a teen-age girl in the surf off Santa Monica is one that lifeguard Arthur C. Verge III will never forget. The 1982 incident, he said, starkly illustrated that his lifelong home was fast becoming a magnet of sorts for some dangerous elements.
From his perch on the county lifeguard towers that dot the beach, Verge, 34, has spent much of his adult life observing Santa Monica's relationship with transients, and says it has gone from bad to worse to intolerable.
"In 17 years of this, you see a lot," Verge, now a part-timer, said recently. "I wish I could say things are getting better, but they have continued to deteriorate. . . . It's becoming Dodge City down here."
Verge's mother was attacked by a transient three years ago in a local church. Last year, a mentally ill homeless man stabbed social worker Robbyn Panitch to death.
More recently, there have been a barrage of incidents, including the arrest of one transient on charges of arson in connection with a series of fires, and another charged with an attempted armed holdup of a Santa Monica bank. While shopping March 4, an 89-year-old woman was stabbed and robbed by a transient.
Then, last Friday, what some have called the ultimate irony occurred: Santa Monica City Atty. Robert M. Myers, widely criticized for his reluctance to prosecute transients, was himself attacked and slightly injured during a scuffle with a man who was attacking Myers' chief prosecuting deputy, Jerry Gordon. Myers said the man appeared to be mentally ill. It has not been determined whether he was a transient, and he has not been caught.
"I hope they are all right," Verge said of Myers and Gordon. "But it does seem like a case of them getting their just deserts."
Critics of Myers immediately issued a press release saying the attack was "proof of his failed policies towards transients in the community," and evidence that Santa Monica's officially tolerant attitude has made the liberal community a magnet for predatory vagrants and troublemakers.
Even supporters of Myers said the attack underscored what has become a dominant concern not just in Santa Monica but other Westside communities as well: What to do with a homeless population that seems to be expanding, increasingly desperate and, many would argue, more aggressive and violent?
In the past, most Westside residents considered the transients who gathered at parks and street corners merely nuisances who would loiter, pester passers-by for change and occasionally shout an obscenity or two, or relieve themselves in the bushes. But in a recent survey conducted by the citizens' group Concerned Homeowners of Santa Monica, a whopping 75% of the 1,000 city homeowners who responded said their biggest concern was not overdevelopment, pollution, or traffic, but the homeless. Many said they no longer felt safe walking their own streets.
Other Westside communities are grappling with similar problems, and some have responded by cracking down in response to complaints.
West Hollywood, which budgets $2 million a year for social service programs and is considered one of the most tolerant cities in Los Angeles County, early this year banished the community's free-meal program from a public park and prohibited sleeping there. Beverly Hills pays for homeless services outside its city line, and Venice outlawed sleeping on the beach three years ago.
In Venice, "Clearly, we still have a number of homeless people at the beach. There are some people who are concerned," said Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who represents the seaside area. And Malibu, some say, has been quietly directing its transients south to Santa Monica.
Hollywood residents are shooing transients off their streets, saying, "Hey, we don't want you here," Los Angeles police Officer Carlos Lopez said.
Santa Monica residents have reacted so strongly, they say, because the city's policies and programs have exacerbated the problem.
Santa Monica police say one-third of their annual budget and police time is spent on transient-related incidents and arrests. The number of transients arrested on felony charges has at least doubled in the last four years, and assaults by transients are up sharply, they said.
What is even more troubling, local residents and police say, is that for every highly publicized attack, there are innumerable smaller attacks and acts of violence and intimidation. City convention and tourism promoter Beverly Moore said such reports are starting to hurt business.
Tour groups and conventions are heading elsewhere rather than risk confrontations with aggressive transients, Moore said at a recent public meeting. She estimated that the city was losing about 5% of its tourism revenue this year as a result.
A recent poll of Santa Monica tourists and conventioners found that 40% reported having "disturbing, frightening experiences," Moore said. "This past summer was absolutely the worst. We are very worried about this summer."