On any ordinary day, the homeless are people nobody wants. But on Tuesday night two Southeast Los Angeles County cities got into a tug-of-war over which one would lay claim to 34 homeless men.
The men spend their days on the streets of Compton, but at night they are bused to a shelter the Salvation Army runs in Bell.
Compton is a poor city acutely aware that federal and state money flows from formulas that depend heavily on population. So, officials there felt that when the nation counted the homeless Tuesday night, they should be counted as Compton residents.
The census officials, however, had already decreed that homeless people would be credited to the city in which they were found sleeping Tuesday night. That meant Bell would get credit for Compton's 34 men, as well as for about 190 others that the Salvation Army buses every night from surrounding cities to a large shelter on the old Cheli Air Force Base site in Bell.
When Compton officials took their concern about the census to the Salvation Army, it was sympathetic, agreeing that the men use Compton city services during the day and probably ought to be counted as Compton residents. So, Capt. Thomas L. Petersen, head of the Army's facility in Compton, went to work Tuesday morning preparing for guests.
He got a cook, brought in VCRs and videos, put cots and blankets in the gym and canceled the Army vans that normally transport the men to Bell at 6 p.m. every night.
Census enumerators agreed to come to the gym. Compton rounded up more than a dozen city employees who volunteered to help staff the temporary shelter all night.
But around 4 p.m. Tuesday, Bell Mayor Ray Johnson got wind of the plan and called Salvation Army officials to complain.
"My feeling," said Johnson, "was that these people have been coming to the Bell shelter every night for approximately two years and I felt that it was only equitable that they be counted there."
Not wanting to offend its Bell hosts, the Salvation Army scrapped its plans even though that city does not support the shelter financially and demands that the Salvation Army bus the men back to the cities where they found them the first thing every morning.
Late Tuesday afternoon Petersen summoned the vans and sent the men to Bell. Compton officials were livid.
"Those people belong to Compton. They're only bused over there to sleep at night," said Compton Councilwoman Patricia A. Moore, who heads the city's census committee.
"So for 10 years," she said, "the money that should come to Compton for services all day long to the homeless will go to Bell. What if some day Bell decides it doesn't want Compton's homeless at night? It will still continue to get that money."
Compton's Assistant City Manager Edmundo Sotelo said, "It cheats the city out of the count and the money that would have accrued from it."
Petersen, meantime, was philosophical Tuesday night as he presided over an empty gym and called the cook to tell her to stay home.
"I think what we're into," he said, "is something the Salvation Army really doesn't have much to do with--politics."