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Lending a 'Helping Hand, Not a Handout' : Homeless: The city has tentatively approved a policy of discouraging panhandlers while encouraging donations to private agencies serving them.

March 18, 1993|G. JEANETTE AVENT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEVERLY HILLS — Santa Monica and Los Angeles count their homeless people by the thousands, and West Hollywood does it by the hundreds.

Beverly Hills, as near as city officials can tell, probably has a few dozen.

But, spurred by complaints from residents and merchants, the Beverly Hills City Council has concluded that the homeless are a problem. And this week, the council unanimously gave preliminary approval to a tough new aimed at eliminating aggressive panhandling, public drinking and many forms of sleeping, lying or even sitting in public places.

The city also is planning a companion program to encourage residents and tourists to contribute money to agencies that serve the homeless rather than giving directly to panhandlers. Donations would be collected at participating restaurants and businesses, then passed on to private agencies, mostly outside the city, that help the needy.

City and police officials readily admit that homelessness is not a crisis in Beverly Hills. "We're not looking at the same problem as Santa Monica or West Hollywood," Deputy Police Chief Ron Garner said, "but it is one we want to deal with."

Hard and fast figures are hard to come by, but those who work with the homeless in Beverly Hills estimate that 40 to 50 homeless people stay or pass through the city on any given day. Several quick daytime tours by a reporter of the city's famed shopping district recently turned up an average of five or six people actively panhandling.

But the number of homeless is actually greater, said the Rev. John Perling, pastor of Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church. Perling helps run the Beverly Hills Ministerial Assn., which consists of five churches and synagogues that provide temporary assistance to the homeless and others in need. Many of the city's homeless, he said, keep a low profile, spending much of their time in the alleys.

The proposed ordinance would prohibit people from sitting, lying or sleeping on sidewalks, greenbelts, parking lots and other public areas except when watching a parade or when seated on a lawfully installed bench. The ordinance also would make it illegal to leave baggage or other personal property in public areas.

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The ordinance would make it a misdemeanor to "coerce, threaten, hound or intimidate another person" for a donation. Such aggressive panhandling could include blocking someone's path, following people after they have indicated they do not want to make a donation, or causing them to fear for their safety. The ordinance also forbids drinking alcoholic beverages on public property or private property open to the public without the permission of the property owner.

The law will come back to the council for a second reading Tuesday, and if approved will go into effect April 23. Violation of the law will be a misdemeanor punishable with a fine.

The city is also drafting an ordinance to prohibit camping in public parks.

The program is intended to offer help to those who need it, but also crack down on panhandlers who physically or verbally intimidate residents and visitors, city officials say.

The city has a deep concern about the homeless, Councilwoman Vicki Reynolds said. In April, a city study group with representatives from churches, synagogues and social service agencies will examine programs established by other cities with an eye to providing more direct help to the homeless in Beverly Hills. Berkeley, for example, has a voucher program that allows residents to buy vouchers to give to homeless people instead of money. The vouchers can then be redeemed for food.

At the same time, the city has to keep its streets and parks for the use of all residents, Reynolds and Mayor Robert Tanenbaum emphasized Tuesday. The city plans to make residents aware of the humanitarian program the city is establishing but "we have to keep our streets secure," Tanenbaum said.

An attorney with a public interest legal group that has challenged Santa Monica's anti-encampment law on constitutional grounds told the council that the proposed Beverly Hills law might be unconstitutional.

The proposed ordinance may not explicitly single out homeless people, said Richard Novak, an attorney with Public Counsel, but he added: "Those of us who do have homes have less need to 'sit, lie or sleep' in public places." Public Counsel is the public interest law office of the Los Angeles County and Beverly Hills bar associations.

Such ordinances have the effect of forcing homeless residents to move to other locations and criminalize individuals for their homeless status, Novak said.

City Atty. Greg Stepanicich said, however, that most of the provisions of the ordinance are not new and have been adopted by other cities, "and as far as we know have not been struck down."

A homeless man who asked to be identified only as "Connie" was less than pleased by the proposed ordinance when interviewed earlier this week.

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