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A Test of Tolerance : Venice: Neighborhood's residents say rising crime by inhabitants of a nearby center for the homeless is straining their compassion for them.

November 06, 1994|LORENZA MUNOZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Juanita Escalera was watering her lawn one morning when a homeless man approached her and demanded water from the hose. Escalera, an 82-year-old widow and Venice resident for 40 years, complied and handed the man the hose. Instead of drinking from it, the man pointed it at Escalera, soaked her with water and coolly walked away.

Residents blame a nearby center for the homeless for such incidents, as well as worse offenses. They complain of open defecation, drug dealing, prostitution and violence committed by homeless people in the alleys surrounding their homes.

Although some residents, describing themselves as liberal Democrats, say they are sympathetic to the plight of the homeless, their patience has snapped.

"I never thought I'd be one of those 'not in my back-yard' (types). I'm an extremely liberal Democrat," said Mimi Lieber, a Venice resident for seven years. "I support the idea of (helping the homeless). But it has to be in an area where little old ladies and children do not get (urinated) on--literally."

Caught in the middle of the debate is the St. Joseph's Homeless Day Center, a support center for homeless and low-income families on Rose Avenue. Even though there are two other agencies on Rose offering services to the homeless, residents believe St. Joseph's has not adequately addressed the problems created by its presence in a residential area.

"We see the same people there every day," said neighbor Eric Rigney, a resident of Venice since 1986. "These people have no respect for the area they are in. They walk around naked, drunk, defecate (in public)."

The center has two daytime security guards around the center and the Bread and Roses Cafe, a restaurant established by St. Joseph's for the homeless, and two security personnel to patrol the neighborhood from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. It has hired community relations personnel and a senior outreach person to improve communication with residents. In addition, St. Joseph's officials say they turn away those who are clearly intoxicated and maintain strict rules for clients, such as prohibiting alcohol consumption on the premises and not allowing abusive language or behavior.

"We really take a proactive stance towards our clients about being respectful for the neighborhood," said Rhonda Meister, executive director of the center. "We want people to assume responsibility in creating a life for themselves."

But the center has little control over clients' behavior outside its immediate vicinity and after the restaurant's and the center's closing times. The restaurant serves the homeless from 9 a.m. to noon weekdays, and the center is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays.

"We are dealing with people who have been homeless for such a long time, the lack of hope is pretty substantial. It takes a lot longer to get them turned around and motivated," Meister said. Many of the homeless clients are suffering from drug and alcohol addiction and mental illness, according to Meister.

Residents say the center's homeless are increasingly harassing older citizens, breaking into homes and causing frequent disturbances in alleys adjacent to homes.

"Nobody is opposed to helping people in need of assistance," said Bruce Wallin, a Venice resident since 1979. "I've held liberal convictions all of my life. What's happened in our neighborhood is wrong. We have been victimized."

Police statistics show that there were 24 reported residential burglaries in the area--the second-highest in the Los Angeles Police Department's Pacific Division--and 21 aggravated assaults in the third quarter of 1994, but police say not all of those incidents were necessarily related to the homeless. Both figures represented decreases in the area from the third quarter of 1993, when there were 26 burglaries and 31 aggravated assaults, according to LAPD figures.

The residents also complain of what they say is inadequate response from the police and Councilwoman Ruth Galanter's office.

"The police won't come unless you have a physical emergency," Rigney said. "You get to the point where you start walking around with a baseball bat."

Capt. Richard LaGarra of the Pacific Division said he is doing the best he can with the resources available. He has assigned one patrol car for the area around the center.

"I know it doesn't make people feel good, but we have to prioritize," LaGarra said. "We don't ignore those calls, but we cannot at this point deploy more officers to the area around St. Joseph's. If there is a violation, then we respond."

Jeff Prang, a spokesman for Galanter, said the councilwoman's staff is "working hard to facilitate a discussion between St. Joseph's and the community."

There have been meetings recently among St. Joseph's Center, local residents and a county Bar Dispute Resolution facilitator with the hopes of increasing communication.

"We would like to work together, but oftentimes (these problems) are out of our eyesight. We would like to develop some way where there is communication between St. Joseph's and the neighborhood," Meister said.

If the negotiations do not produce improved relations, residents say they are unwilling to tolerate much more.

"People all over the city have had enough," Wallin said.

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