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Camp Santa Monica : Policies That Were Intended to Relieve Homelessness Are Being Criticized for Making Matters Worse--and Those on the Streets Aren't Very Happy Either

January 23, 1994|Nancy Hill-Holtzman | Times Staff Writer

Two years ago, Santa Monica adopted what is believed to be the nation's first sweeping program to alleviate homelessness. But today, the city's homelessness problem is as bad as ever.

Some say worse.

Santa Monica residents, along with millions who visit the city each year, still encounter homeless-related problems rivaling those of major metropolitan downtown areas across the country.

People are accosted at bank money machines by beggars offering to wash car windows. Panhandling is rampant in commercial areas, with some brazen enough to snatch food from the plates of restaurant patrons eating outdoors. Residents shy away from city parks because large enclaves of transients have turned these public spaces into campgrounds.

"It's as bad or worse than ever," said Herb Katz, who voted for the plan two years ago when he was a member of the City Council. "The public is furious."

And scared. "People feel threatened," said Santa Monica Police Chief James T. Butts. "The public won't put up with it anymore."

Then there's the continuing frustration at what the homeless themselves must endure--the filth, the hunger, the lack of medical and psychiatric attention--all amid relative affluence. Such conditions prompt some to recommend more help, rather than a crackdown. Indeed, many city residents got a firsthand look at homelessness after Monday's earthquake, which drove hundreds of apartment- and home-dwellers to emergency shelters and makeshift encampments.

Said Elizabeth Noble Lee, who was staying in a Red Cross shelter after the quake left her Topanga Canyon home without electricity, water or gas. "Being here, I realize how close I could have come. It's a rude awakening."

Evaluating Santa Monica's homeless policies is important these days: Other cities from New York to Seattle are launching major homeless programs of their own. Santa Monica's plan, developed by a citizens Task Force on Homelessness after months of toil, is viewed by many officials elsewhere as a test case for their efforts.

The program, approved in December, 1991, is part carrot and part stick. Under the program, the city has moved to speed construction of homeless housing, moved the homeless feeding program off the City Hall lawn and prohibited encampment in city parks.

At the same time, the plan was hailed by City Council members as a way to forge an alliance between those who wanted to crack down on the homeless and those who wanted the city to embrace them.

It was a sharp departure from the city's previous philosophy, which frowned on restrictions that might make homeless people feel unwelcome. The change precipitated the firing of one of that philosophy's prime proponents--then-City Atty. Robert M. Myers. Myers, who was removed from office in September, 1992, was replaced last month by Marsh Moutrie, who has vowed not to take political stands.

Yet, Santa Monica has not made much headway. Signs of the large homeless population abound.

At Memorial Park, carts and boxes of belongings line the fence. People bed down on the tennis courts, in adjacent alleys and on the grass. The fences on the tennis courts at Lincoln Park serve as laundry lines and makeshift headboards for folks who lean their gear or themselves up against them.

Because of construction, Palisades Park has had a recent reprieve from its former notoriety as a homeless encampment with an ocean view.

"They finally found a way to clean up Palisades Park," quipped one Westsider. "They fenced it off."

The lack of visible progress after two years of work is partly a result of the city's philosophy of homeless services. That philosophy favors focusing social services resources on long-term solutions for a few people rather than shelter for many.

There is, however, enough emergency help--clothes, meals and assistance getting general relief money--to maintain people, albeit barely, on the streets. It's also enough, however, to keep the homeless coming to town.

City Manager John Jalili says Santa Monica's uphill struggle with homelessness shows that a small city, no matter how dedicated, can't solve a regional problem, especially when other locales aren't doing their fair share. That regional problem has clearly worsened in the past year because of the lingering recession and cuts in welfare.

Moreover, the homeless task force never pretended that its recommendations would cause the homeless to go away, says Vivian Rothstein, a task force member. The goal, rather, was to gain community consensus on some approaches to the homeless problem, ending a political battle royal over the issue.

But others contend the liberal forces that control the City Council may lack the political will to make life more difficult for homeless people who refuse to adhere to tougher standards of behavior.

Among the evidence cited by such critics:

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