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Down and Out in Santa Monica

January 31, 1998

David Busch was arrested along with four other people on Nov. 19, ending a weeklong demonstration at a boarded-up Santa Monica hotel protesting the lack of homeless shelters in the city. Two juveniles were later released and charges against a third man were dropped, but Busch, 42, and homeless advocate Jennafer Waggoner are scheduled to appear in court on Tuesday. Busch, with a group that is calling itself Food Not Bombs/Homes Not Jails, spoke with AMY PYLE about how he ended up at the Flamingo Hotel, chained to a beam in protest.

I've been homeless off and on for three years, this time since October. I never intended to become a homeless activist, but after receiving so much help as a homeless person, I wanted to find something I could give back to the community.

In October, I was standing in a food line in a Santa Monica city park and a local homeless activist, Jennafer Waggoner, was talking about our predicament if it rains before the cold-weather shelters open up. While everybody was screaming "El Nino! El Nino!" the city hadn't even thought about the homeless people. I was living on the street; I'd been on a waiting list to get into the city shelter for three weeks. The shelters, even when they're open, hold only a third of the homeless people on the Westside.

I knew about the empty (hotel) building because I had passed by it many times. Our first night there was Nov. 12. There were five of us that first night, plus a lot of supporters. Three of us had vowed to chain ourselves to a structural support of the building, inspired by the environmental protesters up in Northern California who were able to delay their arrest long enough to get some attention.

We borrowed friends' phones and faxes and cell phones, issued press releases, invited the media to come out the first night. We rotated chaining ourselves for seven days, among a group of seven of us, including a handicapped woman who had been living on the Promenade for about a year. I couldn't believe that the city had let this handicapped person live on the Promenade for that long without helping her in some way.

According to a Rand Corp. study, there are an estimated 1,500 homeless people in Santa Monica and only about 200 shelter beds. So the homeless people are forced to sleep illegally in alleys, at parks, at the beach, in angry business people's doorways and anguished residents' yards because the city refuses to spend between $4 and $10 a day to shelter them. Last year, the city's budget was $138 million--$2 million of which goes to homeless services. For all the complaining in this city over the "homeless problems," why don't people do a little quick math: 1,500 homeless people times 365 days of the year times $10 equals a paltry 4% of the city budget.

The city's police budget last year was $20 million. Ask the city's police officers if they couldn't save even 10% of their day if Santa Monica's homeless people had access to some cheaper solutions, like a day center open to all--a place with some tables and free coffee where homeless people could drop off their bundles for the afternoon while they trudge around town to go to the doctor, look for work and improve their lot in life. Such a place could offer other things too. Homeless people are often accused of shunning jobs, but we have seen these so-called "lazy" people willingly dedicate themselves as volunteers to do important, real work in this community--painting houses for the disabled, preparing food pantries for the poor, clearing trashed beaches. Given this city's obsession with trendiness and its rush to a luxury building boom, who deserves respect around here?

Santa Monica is a tourist town. People love to come here because of the ocean and the fresh air and the views. Yet, when homeless people, many coming simply to avoid freezing to death in the streets of Denver or Chicago or New York, arrive in Santa Monica, this city sloughs them off to Mar Vista, Culver City, Venice, downtown Los Angeles. These areas all struggle with crime, poverty, poorer schools and more gang violence than Santa Monica. It is the height of hypocrisy for wealthy, trendy Santa Monicans to expect those areas to deal with our homeless tourist "crisis" as well.

If this case goes to trial, it will be a testimony to what we did to try to put human rights in balance with property rights and caring for one another before bureaucracy. Certainly in a city as wealthy as Santa Monica there's plenty of room for people to be reasonable in that regard.

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