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Dispossessed Again : City Loses Patience and Drives Homeless From Their Camps

March 01, 1992|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — City crews have recently scooped up the remnants of small homeless settlements that had long dotted the downtown stretches along the Long Beach Freeway.

Workers hauled away scattered heaps of soggy blankets and trash left behind last month after police told the ragged bands who lived there to move on.

Some of the homeless people packed up and pushed their shopping carts and tents north to a dusty vacant lot across the street from Drake Park. But that won't be their home for long. The city, no longer willing to turn its back on homeless encampments, plans to sweep them out of there too.

Never especially hospitable to an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 local homeless, Long Beach is likely to become even less so.

The City Council is researching ways of regulating panhandling. And officials are adopting a get-tough policy on encampments, preparing an ordinance that would ban overnight sleeping in public areas. Violators could be fined or even subjected to jail time.

"It was starting to become dangerous, expensive and unmanageable," Deputy City Manager Henry Taboada said of the encampments, which have been clustered on the western edge of downtown, near the freeway and the Los Angeles River, under bridges and railroad trestles.

The settlements had been growing at an alarming rate, Taboada said, presenting health hazards and traffic problems. At the same time, public complaints had increased and political pressure was mounting for something to be done about the downtown homeless population.

Residents and business owners "are telling us in no uncertain terms that they're sick and tired of this," Taboada stressed. "They're telling us they've had it."

Community activist Scott Ringwelski, who lives in the Willmore City district bordering downtown, went to the City Council last year with a number of his neighbors to demand action.

"Dealing with these people on a day-to-day basis--I can say I have no sympathy for them," Ringwelski said last week. "They have completely worn out any stretch of sympathy I might have had for them. . . . You offer them food, they scorn it. You offer them work, they give you disdainful looks."

Not all feel that way. Homeless advocates, long critical of what they contend is the city's official indifference to the homeless problem, are greeting the crackdown with consternation.

"I'm very disturbed by it," said Helen Corum of the Homeless Coalition, an advocacy group. "They have made no provision for these people. They have to go someplace. They're people."

Robert DeLaurier, a tractor company employee who once lived on the streets for several months and has remained a homeless activist, complained that city leaders "want to push the problem away instead of doing something about it."

The newly arrived residents of the field near Drake Park don't think much of the city's new policy either.

"We're yo-yos," complained Carolina, 41, who declined to give her last name. She was evicted from her makeshift abode under the Shoemaker Bridge, along with her husband, John, and their speckled dog, Daisy.

"They say they'll give us help. But there's no place that will take me and my husband and let us keep our dog," said Carolina, who scrimps by, collecting bottles and cans and doing mending for the elderly. "We can't give her up. She's like our child."

Carolina and John, a laid-off construction worker, have been on the streets for six months. Each time they have to leave a spot, they lose some of their possessions. "We have one wok, two forks and a spoon because we have moved so often," she lamented. This last time, "we grabbed the bedding first. I have no jacket."

Not far away, Judy, 48, sat in her wheelchair, her clothes dirty and her hair stringy. Her companion, Duane, a 40-year-old who looks more like 60, sat on the ground, a quart of beer within reach.

"Just give us a place where we can stay," pleaded Judy, who has muscular dystrophy.

"For more than a week," finished Duane, a former carpenter. "We're not bad people."

City officials, who have consistently argued that the homeless problem is the county's responsibility, insist that services and beds are available. When police went in two weeks ago to clean out the settlements, social workers went with them to refer the campers to social service agencies.

Most of the people who were camping out near the freeway and under the Shoemaker Bridge want to live the way they do, Taboada said.

"These folks tend to be dedicated homeless people," he said. "They have no interest in being helped. They want to be left alone."

Only recently, Taboada said, the director of the Long Beach Rescue Mission called to say he had 50 to 60 beds available.

But the privately run mission, the main year-round shelter in the city, is disdained by many homeless people.

"They treat you like you're in jail," John said. Admission to the mission shelter is selective. And once accepted, the homeless have to participate in daily religious services.

John Jensen, president of Christian Outreach Appeal, a local charity that provides the homeless with food and limited shower facilities, said his organization hopes this year to start up a multi-service drop-in center for the homeless.

The group is buying an industrial building on the city's west side that could serve as such a facility if funding is lined up.

In the meantime, Jensen said the Homeless Advisory Committee, of which he is a member, is trying to develop a policy on vagrancy and panhandling that could be recommended to the City Council.

"(We want) to help anyone who wants to make a change and get tough with people who don't, so other people in the city can have a quality of life and not be harassed," Jensen said.

Still, he added, "we believe everybody has a right to be somewhere."

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