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Palmdale May Cite Homeless in Camps

Ordinance would help the city better police transients, but critics say a shelter is needed.

November 13, 2002|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

As Palmdale officials consider a crackdown on transient camps, critics say the city has done little to help the growing ranks of homeless.

An ordinance to be discussed tonight by the City Council would allow authorities to issue misdemeanor citations to homeless people who camp illegally.

The proposal has stirred debate about homelessness in a city that in 40 years has been transformed from a rural outpost of alfalfa farmers to Los Angeles County's fastest-growing city in the 1990s.

Mayor Pro Tem Mike Dispenza said that, while homelessness has not become an epidemic, it is one of many new urban problems facing the city.

Dispenza, who supports the ordinance, said homeless people have begun camping near his insurance office. "It's a problem we've got to look at," he said.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department asked the city to create the law to help battle a number of small homeless camps that have sprouted up around Palmdale.

Deputies and city code enforcement officers say the camps -- which are often close to businesses and homes -- generate trash and crime, and lack bathroom facilities.

In recent weeks, homeless advocates have lobbied the city to soften the ordinance. Dianne Grooms, a United Way vice president for north Los Angeles County, said that, while Palmdale nonprofits offer vouchers for short-term hotel stays, the nearest homeless shelter is in neighboring Lancaster.

Palmdale has been overwhelmed in the last year by a new wave of homeless single mothers and their children, who are primarily renters forced from their homes when the properties are sold in a resurgent housing market, Grooms said.

"The property's being sold and the new owners want to move in," she said. "This is a new type of homeless issue."

Palmdale's homeless population numbers in the thousands and is growing, Grooms said. But sheriff's officials estimate the homeless population at about 100, and the number of homeless in the illegal camps as "very small." Deputies say the campers are mostly vagrants who do not want help. Deputy Donna Levi said the Sheriff's Department has trouble enforcing existing trespassing ordinances because they require the assistance of the vacant-lot owners, who often live out of state. The new law would allow them to cite campers without the property owners' compliance, she said.

Levi said the Antelope Valley has adequate services to help the homeless, "but we're only talking about [citing] the people who refuse to get any."

Dispenza said the council may consider altering the ordinance so that homeless campers would receive a ticket rather than a misdemeanor citation.

He also said the issue has convinced him that the city needs to consider building a homeless shelter.

"I'm as much of a bleeding heart as anybody else," he said. "We have to take care of the people that really need and want it."

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