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Soup Kitchen Fuels Topanga Dispute Over the Homeless


A group of Topanga Canyon residents, fearing that transient day laborers and homeless people are creating an acute fire danger by camping out in the hilly area, is calling for the closure of a local soup kitchen.

Galvanized by a canyon fire in late January that authorities believe was ignited by a homeless person cooking on a makeshift stove, the residents say an effort by PATCH (People Assisting Topanga Canyon With Helping Hands) to feed the laborers is encouraging homeless people to move into the area. The fire did little damage but briefly threatened several houses.

"We have been really concerned about these encampments in the brush," said Allen Emerson, coordinator of Topanga Canyon's volunteer arson watch group. "I have been saying for months and months they are a danger.

"We have had numerous Fire Department responses saying they smell smoke and they go and find people cooking," he added.

Symbolically, the soup kitchen "is a welcome mat and it really doesn't represent the community," said Terry Sweeney, an actor and writer who two weeks ago resigned from PATCH's board of directors after disagreeing with the group over how it should help day laborers.

PATCH spokeswoman Susan Petrulas Nissman said there is no evidence to support the claim that the soup kitchen, which serves 20 to 40 meals a day, attracts more laborers or homeless people to the community. The program is targeted toward those laborers who come to the community but fail to find work.

She said some of the criticism against the soup kitchen, which opened 11 months ago, is due to PATCH's widely publicized efforts to help the laborers. Besides offering a meal to the workers five days a week, PATCH has been working to get public transportation into Topanga Canyon for the laborers as well as establishing a permanent hiring site within Topanga.

"We have been . . . very open about what we were doing, and I think it started looking like we supported the people who possibly could burn down the canyon," Nissman said. "We are not drawing more people."

PATCH was formed about 18 months ago after some Topanga Canyon residents began urging their neighbors not to hire day laborers and to turn them in to authorities. Its goals have been to find solutions to problems posed by laborers loitering in the community's commercial area and homeless people living in the brush.

PATCH supporters and opponents are expected to turn out in force tonight at a public meeting called by the group and the Topanga Canyon Town Council. A Los Angeles County Fire Department representative is expected to speak at the meeting, which begins at 7:30 p.m. at Topanga School.

Topanga Canyon is not the only place where residents have become concerned over day laborers creating an increased fire danger by living in brushy areas.

After some Malibu residents complained that a hiring site in Zuma Beach that serves a free lunch was attracting workers who were then camping out in the area, county authorities decided to shut down the site as of Wednesday. The residents also complained that the free lunch might attract homeless people from Santa Monica.

The January fire, which prompted authorities to evacuate Topanga School as a precaution, was preceded by a brush fire in November that was also started by a homeless person's cooking fire, according to Fire Capt. Mike Johnson. That fire blackened 10 acres.

Johnson said firefighters are called out two or three times a week to investigate small fires started by people who appear to be living in the hills. "They are trying to stay warm or trying to cook food," he said.

Although no one knows for sure how many people live in Topanga Canyon's hills and canyons, one estimate has placed the number at 300, Nissman said. She said she is aware of families living in the hills, and two years ago a baby was born in a tree house.

Nissman said that in recent months, the 30 or so volunteers who help feed the laborers have not noticed an appreciable increase in their numbers. People who are given a meal are handed a flyer printed in English and Spanish that warns them of the fire dangers in the hills and canyons.

However, Nissman said PATCH members have noticed an increase in the number of people coming back for second or third visits, perhaps because there are fewer construction jobs available because of the recession.

"We have seen an increase in hunger and a decrease in hiring, which makes it seem like there are more men around," she said.

PATCH's critics praise the group's compassion, but nevertheless maintain that the soup kitchen serves to heighten the fire danger by attracting more laborers and homeless people to the community.

Sweeney said he served food to laborers when the kitchen initially opened. "What I saw is the faces kept changing, there were new people all the time, and we were unable to keep up with who was who," he said.

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