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Driven Out : Homeless Blame Grand Prix for Eviction at Camp Site

April 04, 1991|ROXANA KOPETMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — As the city spruces up for the Grand Prix, workers are gearing up to raze a homeless encampment of makeshift tents and scattered debris.

About 40 people have been told to pick up their meager belongings and leave the downtown encampment that is set up under the trestles of an old railway near the Broadway exit from the Long Beach (710) Freeway. On Sunday, workers plan to move in and remove anything left behind.

By the time thousands of tourists pour into the city for next week's Toyota Grand Prix, the area visible from the freeway will be well groomed. The three days of racing are expectd to draw 200,000 visitors. It opens Friday, April 12, with practice and qualifying laps; a celebrity race will be held April 13, and several races, including the 95-lap main event, will take place on April 14.

"When you invite friends over to a party, you clean your house, don't you? So does the city," explained Sheila Pagnani, the homeless-services coordinator for Long Beach. "The city is having a big celebration. And they want to look good."

Signs warning of the cleanup have been posted in the camp, the largest in Long Beach, since last week. Some of the men and women living there said they plan to be out by Sunday. One said he wasn't budging. None knew where they would go.

"Do you know where you are going?" Mary, who has been homeless for two months, asked Yolanda Mollum.

Mollum, an on-and-off resident of the camp for nearly two years, shook her head.

"Me neither," Mary said.

On Tuesday, a handful of homeless people arrived unexpectedly at the City Council meeting to complain that the city is more interested in its tourists than its homeless. City Manager James C. Hankla told the City Council that the timing of the cleanup and the Grand Prix is coincidental, and officials pledged to try to find shelter for the homeless.

But some of the homeless people living at the camp noted that the city also cleaned the area at about the same time last year.

"They cleaned during the last Grand Prix. They don't want the tourists to see the homeless," said Mollum, 39, who lives in the camp with her husband, John, and their dog, Daisy.

The Mollums said a city worker told them that it would be safe to return to the site the week after the Grand Prix.

Marshall Blesofsky, an activist with Long Beach Area Citizens Involved, said he saw city workers dump the homeless' belongings during a cleanup last spring, before the Grand Prix. "It was heartless," he said.

But city officials said the area poses health and safety hazards and is subject to a cleanup an average of once or twice a year. Usually, workers move in after receiving complaints from the public or city officials, said Christine Froehlich, a special projects officer in the Public Works Department.

"It is an entrance to the city, and people do complain about it," Froehlich said.

"The city's responsibility is to the health and welfare of all its citizens, not (just) to a small group choosing to live an alternate lifestyle," Pagnani said.

Pagnani said she has been at the camp several times, urging the people there to take advantage of social services available to them. Many do not want to abide by the rules of shelters, and they choose to stay in an unhealthy setting. Many have problems with alcohol and drugs, she said.

"This is the best of a bad situation. We don't know what else to do," said Pagnani, who plans to be there Sunday with other social service workers. "This is a terrible problem and I don't think the solution is ideal. There are no ideal solutions."

A major event such as the Grand Prix only "exacerbates the situation," Pagnani said, explaining that with so many people in town, more would congregate at the camp. "They don't all stay at the Hyatt. Many see tents by the side of the road and decide to stay there."

An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 homeless people live in Long Beach. Local activists have long complained that the city doesn't provide enough services for them. "We've been neglecting this problem for years," said Alan Lowenthal, president of Long Beach Area Citizens Involved.

Ernie Spaulding, 62, calls the camp by the freeway his home. "All of us down here have a different problem. We love each other and we stand together." As he spoke, Spaulding sat on a folding bed covered by a worn lime-green blanket. The frame of his home rests on one of the wooden pilings that hold up an old railway track. His roof is a large sheet of plastic. His belongings include a set of pots and pans and a number of books.

"We'll relocate for a while, but then we'll come back again," Spaulding said.

Steve, a homeless man who has lived at the camp on and off for three years, is not sure where he will go this weekend. But he said he knows where he'll be in two weeks: "After the Grand Prix, I'll come back."

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