A Workout, Not a Handout : Businessmen Offer Idle Homeless a Chance to Earn Some Money

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Times Staff Writer

Every day, Kenny Kahn could stand on the balcony of his office overlooking Santa Monica’s cliff-side Palisades Park and watch scores of homeless sleeping on benches or asking for handouts.

One day just after Christmas, the 47-year-old criminal attorney simply got tired of it.

“I went to the park, and an old dude asked me for spare change,” Kahn said this week. “I started to give it to him, but then I said, ‘How’d you like to work?’ ”

Job Picking Up Trash

Kahn gave the man a plastic bag and paid him $7 to pick up trash for an hour. The next day the man returned with another homeless man. And soon Kahn was hiring a crew of 14 homeless people to regularly sweep the park and beach of garbage and debris. All work for two hours at $7 an hour each.


Kahn’s effort attracted the attention of several lawyers and businessmen who wanted to participate. On Friday, Kahn announced the formation of a nonprofit organization--People Encouraging People--to oversee the project, which he said has received $5,000 in pledges.

The strange alliance of businessmen and the homeless is a marked contrast to often-tense relations between similar groups in many cities. Even in Santa Monica, where attitudes toward the homeless are lenient, officials frequently receive complaints about the swelling number of homeless who gather at Palisades Park.

But Kahn and his associates said they want to represent part of the “new activism” that President Bush called for in his inaugural address by showing how private groups can help put the homeless back to work.

“It’s easy to complain, or you can do something about it (the homeless problem),” said shop owner Paul Minor, who provided the homeless workers with yellow T-shirts. “You can put your head in the sand and not see the problem, or you can own up to it.”

On Friday, Kahn gave a small pep talk to 14 homeless workers before they fanned out from a picnic table to begin picking up trash.

“Some people think you don’t want to work, that you just want a handout,” he told the group. “Our job is to turn that image around. . . . This is not a charity. This is not a freebie. We’re working!”


Kahn readily admitted that his effort amounts to little more than a “drop in the bucket.”

But he has high hopes. Kahn said he will now be able to solicit and accept money to hire additional homeless workers. Until now, Kahn said, he has had to turn away many people asking for work because he did not have money to pay them.

News of the project spread by word-of-mouth in the homeless community, and reaction was mixed. Some homeless Friday seemed indifferent, others skeptical, while the participants seemed cautiously enthusiastic.

“It gives me something to do instead of just sitting around,” said Peter Panagiotis, 28, who said he has lived in the park for about three months. “I’ve got nothing better to do, and I’m always around, so why not?”

But another transient scowled, “I know all the money coming in, they (the homeless) ain’t going to see any of it.”

Popular Gathering Spot

Palisades Park, which overlooks the Santa Monica Pier and Pacific Coast Highway, has for some time been a popular gathering point for many homeless, who park loaded shopping carts underneath the palms or camp out until police make them move on. A feeding program run by residents has been in operation in the park for several years.

Despite the food and work programs and lenient local attitudes, the transient community has suffered some troublesome developments recently. On Dec. 21, two homeless men were found murdered in Santa Monica’s Crescent Bay Park, about three blocks from Palisades Park. A third transient was charged in the slaying.