SANTA MONICA — Despite pleas from dozens of homeless people, the Santa Monica City Council on Tuesday voted 5 to 2 to close all the city's parks from midnight until 5 a.m. as a means to curb rampant drug dealing and other crime.
The homeless speakers said the measure was aimed at routing them from the parks and its enactment would make their already perilous existence even more difficult.
"It will give police just cause to harass us just because we're homeless," said Jeffrey Glaze.
Some suggested homeless people, as well as drug dealers, would invade residential neighborhoods if they were displaced from the parks. "Where are you going to move these people?" said LeLand Leonard, who is homeless. "To the gutter? The alleys?"
Others insisted there must be another way for police to handle crime in the park. "Do your job!" one speaker said.
But proponents of closing the parks--including the police chief--said the move was urgently needed, especially in Palisades Park, where more than 500 arrests for drug-related offenses have been made in a year.
Because of the nature of drug dealing and the laws that govern it, arrests require time-consuming and expensive sting operations, said Police Chief James T. Butts.
And as soon as the undercover operation is over drug dealers move back in, he said. The new ordinance, which will be effective 30 days after final approval next week, provides police a legal tool that will allow them to ask people to leave the parks when they are supposed to be closed.
Although a survey of 11 nearby cities showed that shutting down parks overnight is commonplace, the dissenting voices on the council viewed the measure as part of a pattern that has dire implications for all residents.
"What I see is restriction after restriction of every individual who visits and works and lives in this community," said Mayor Judy Abdo. "I see it going on and on. I'm very sorry to be on a council that is doing this."
Councilman Tony Vazquez was also highly critical, saying the police had not shown sufficient proof that crime was out of control in the middle of the night. "It's wishful thinking (that) this ordinance will solve the problem," he said.
Initially, the council talked about just closing Palisades Park at night. But a decision was made to close all the parks after residents complained that the goings-on at the other parks threatened their security.
The situation in other parks would only worsen if drug dealers banned from Palisades Park were looking for somewhere else to set up shop, the council reasoned.
"We have to trust whether the chief is going to utilize that tool in a judicious, fair, legal way," said Councilman Kelly Olsen, who sponsored the park closure measure.
The council has previously passed ordinances against living in parks and regulating their use by large groups--including homeless feeding programs. Both of those ordinances are being challenged in court.
The city also has a 35-year-old ban on sleeping in the parks from midnight to 5 a.m., which is not being enforced--and there are no immediate plans to do so, Butts said. This curious contradiction means that when the new law goes into effect, the only people in the park who will be left alone are those who are sleeping--even though that too is technically illegal.
"So we would just let sleeping drug dealers lie?" asked Councilwoman Asha Greenberg.
An effort by Vazquez and Abdo to repeal the law prohibiting sleeping in the park after midnight--and to specifically allow it--received no support from the rest of the council.
Sidewalks, the Pier and its parking lots are exempted from the law.
Since the park closure idea was raised a month ago, council members have taken quite a beating on the issue. Based on a statement by Olsen that there were other public places where they could legally be, a group of homeless people thanked him for his "invitation" and promptly moved to the front lawn of City Hall.
They have been camped out there for a month in protest, their sleeping bags and other gear stacked up next to the front door. Though the protest has been peaceful and orderly, there have been a few problems.
The protesters got caught trying to plug in their electric coffeepot into the city's power lines. City workers complained about having to pass a phalanx of sleeping bodies to get to work. And those with open front windows at City Hall were subject to the stench of human excrement and urine, since no public restrooms were open at night. (Protest leader Jerry Rubin finally arranged for a portable toilet.)
Before the council meeting, the protesters held a rally, featuring music and impassioned speeches exhorting the council to shift courses.
"Most of you are about a week away from being out here with us," said Simmie Wilson, who has lived in Lincoln Park, north of Wilshire Boulevard, since April. "Everybody out on the streets doesn't do drugs or use alcohol," Wilson said. "Everybody doesn't panhandle. A lot of us would rather work for our money if given a job."
Protest leader Len Doucette, who publishes a newsletter about homelessness, told the crowd, "This is really important. We have no other place to sleep--except possibly the Pacific Ocean--if they close the parks."