Surging homelessness breaks 'city with a heart'

February 16, 1992|By Pamela Kramer | Pamela Kramer,Knight-Ridder News Service

SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- For years, it's been known as the People's Republic of Santa Monica. But a booming homeless population that has spawned a new nickname -- Skid Row by the Sea -- has left this rock of progressive policy splintered.

On one side stand residents and business people who complain, in the words of one, that "super liberal" city policies have made the seaside city a mecca for transients. They are fearful of criminal activity drawn to parks overrun by homeless people.

On the other side is City Attorney Robert Myers, who has criticized recent attempts by officials to roust non-violent homeless people from public spaces as out of character for the city. He has declined to prosecute people for sleeping in parks, and declaring he was proud to be a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union, Mr. Myers recently declined to toughen a proposed anti-camping law he described as "oppressive."

In the middle is a City Council that says it wants to help the homeless while reclaiming the parks.

It's a prickly question that has divided other California communities where homelessness has put a strain on civic tolerance and civic resources.

"What's going on in Santa Monica is emblematic of what goes on inside most all of us," said Mayor Ken Genser. "We are trying to grapple with an appropriate balance between compassion and enforcement of community standards."

Until recently, critics say, the city has put too much emphasis on compassion. They say a daily meals program on City Hall's lawn and Mr. Myers' failure to prosecute campers and panhandlers lay out a welcome mat to the homeless.

"Everybody says Santa Monica is a city with a heart," said Jean Sedillos, a leader of a group called Save Our City. "That's right. But you've got to use your brain, too."

A population of up to 5,000 homeless people a year is too much for the city of 90,000 to handle, she said. "You can only fit so many people in a lifeboat before everybody sinks."

Mr. Genser concedes the city's approach has sent a message to "come to Santa Monica, and you will be taken care of." But a new task force report proposes a wide range of programs that would attach new responsibilities to homeless people receiving food or housing assistance.

For instance, meal distribution programs would be tied to social services ranging from housing assistance to substance abuse treatment. The report also recommends working with neighboring cities to advocate regional and federal responses to the national problem. It urges continued commitment to providing shelter and low-cost housing. But it also recommends some kind of law against camping in public spaces.

Mr. Myers' opposition to that part of the strategy was no great surprise. His record of standing firm by his principles has led some critics routinely to characterize him as a "habitual criminal." (He's been arrested several times for protesting such issues as nuclear weapons testing and the war in the Persian Gulf.)

He dismisses the suggestion that he stands as the liberal conscience of a city veering from its progressive path. But if there was any doubt about how far he would carry his position on the homeless, it vanished after officials last fall ordered police to increase enforcement of a law against sleeping in parks at night.

Mr. Myers, whose office runs a meal-distribution program on Saturdays, issued a harsh memo criticizing the new direction as "completely out of character with this city's commitment to HTC human rights." He then listed 19 progressive resolutions the council had adopted, ranging from opposing U.S. intervention in El Salvador to supporting a bilateral nuclear weapons freeze initiative.

"The interest of most cities is to manage the homeless and get them out of town so the housed residents stop their complaints," said Mr. Myers, 41. "It seems irresponsible to criminalize homelessness rather than solve it. . . . There's no evidence to me that there are more homeless people in Santa Monica than the community's wealth can support."

And if the council doesn't like the way he's doing his job, he said, it can fire him.

Critics say that as author of the city's famous rent control law, Mr. Myers has enjoyed protection from a council majority supported by a politically powerful renters-rights group. But they say tenants, too, are frustrated by problems with the homeless. And they point to San Francisco, another relatively liberal city, where former Mayor Art Agnos' perceived permissiveness with homeless people is considered part of the reason he was not re-elected.

Jeremy Waldron, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, argues that as more cities tighten their laws regarding the homeless, a serious question of freedom arises for such basic functions as sleep.

"You can't be free to do something unless there's somewhere that you're free to do it," Mr. Waldron said. "These folks have no private place to sleep in, and now we're trying to organize it so there's no public place to sleep in. But sleeping is not something anyone can do without. . . . We're just sort of neglecting the fact that public places are the only places on the planet available for people with no homes."

Santa Monica Councilman Herb Katz, who describes himself as a moderate, has a different perspective: "I care about the homeless. But there's a lot of people out there that don't need to be homeless that are just damned lazy." Until the city takes a tougher stand, he said, "the word's out: 'Come to Santa Monica -- it's a freeloader's paradise.' "

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