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Action on Homeless Delayed

Santa Monica: The council puts off a decision on tougher policies for two weeks amid intense debate.

September 26, 2002|MARTHA GROVES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After hearing nearly four hours of emotional testimony, the Santa Monica City Council early Wednesday postponed for two weeks a vote on two ordinances designed to make the city's downtown less hospitable to homeless people.

The proposals have launched a highly charged debate in this seaside community of 88,000, which has long had a reputation for compassion toward the homeless but appears to be growing weary of the seemingly intractable problem.

One proposal would prohibit lying or sitting in downtown doorways from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. The other seeks to limit food giveaways in city parks by requiring the distributors to comply with community-events laws and county health codes.

Some residents, business owners and tourists complain that the abundant weekday meals lure indigents, who then linger and, in some cases, exhibit antisocial behavior, such as public defecation or aggressive panhandling.

It was 12:40 a.m. Wednesday when the seven bleary-eyed council members heard from the last of more than 130 individuals, many of them homeless men and women toting duffel and shopping bags, who had signed up to offer their two minutes' worth on the topic.

"If we can't be on public property and can't be on private property, what are we supposed to do? Levitate?" asked Jennafer Yellowhorse, editor of Making Change, a newspaper for the homeless.

Several homeless individuals offered tearful testimony, saying that it would violate their civil rights to curb the handouts. One activist vowed to go to court should the ordinance pass.

"Voices were heard from sides of the issue we didn't even know existed," said Mayor Pro Tem Kevin McKeown, who has spoken out against the ordinances. "We now have two weeks to think about it."

Residents who paraded before the council differed sharply in their views, with some advocating the new rules and others saying that they feared that vagrants would migrate into residential areas.

Many observers said the decision to postpone the council discussion and vote to Oct. 8 reflected the overwhelming complexity of the homeless problem.

On any given day, the city has about 1,000 transients. The 22 social service agencies that help homeless people do not have the resources to help them all.

Hundreds of homeless individuals take advantage of brown-bag meals doled out most weekdays by as many as 30 groups that travel from as far away as Oxnard.

Critics of the food giveaways said the meals should be indoors and linked to services, such as job training or treatment for mental disorders or substance abuse.

Several activists who attended the meeting, which began early Tuesday evening, voiced hope that the food distributors might start joining forces on their own with social service organizations.

John Maceri, executive director of the Ocean Park Community Center, has been talking with HOPE (Helping Other People Eat), Loyola Marymount University and other food providers about collaborating. "My sense," Maceri said, "is there will be some sort of compromise."

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