The image of a transient man choking the life out of a teen-age girl in the surf off Santa Monica is one that lifeguard Arthur C. Verge III will never forget. The 1982 incident, he said, starkly illustrated that his lifelong home was fast becoming a magnet of sorts for some dangerous elements.
From his perch on the county lifeguard towers that dot the beach, Verge, 34, has spent much of his adult life observing Santa Monica's relationship with transients, and says it has gone from bad to worse to intolerable.
"In 17 years of this, you see a lot," Verge, now a part-timer, said recently. "I wish I could say things are getting better, but they have continued to deteriorate. . . . It's becoming Dodge City down here."
Verge's mother was attacked by a transient three years ago in a local church. Last year, a mentally ill homeless man stabbed social worker Robbyn Panitch to death.
More recently, there have been a barrage of incidents, including the arrest of one transient on charges of arson in connection with a series of fires, and another charged with an attempted armed holdup of a Santa Monica bank. While shopping March 4, an 89-year-old woman was stabbed and robbed by a transient.
Then, last Friday, what some have called the ultimate irony occurred: Santa Monica City Atty. Robert M. Myers, widely criticized for his reluctance to prosecute transients, was himself attacked and slightly injured during a scuffle with a man who was attacking Myers' chief prosecuting deputy, Jerry Gordon. Myers said the man appeared to be mentally ill. It has not been determined whether he was a transient, and he has not been caught.
"I hope they are all right," Verge said of Myers and Gordon. "But it does seem like a case of them getting their just deserts."
Critics of Myers immediately issued a press release saying the attack was "proof of his failed policies towards transients in the community," and evidence that Santa Monica's officially tolerant attitude has made the liberal community a magnet for predatory vagrants and troublemakers.
Even supporters of Myers said the attack underscored what has become a dominant concern not just in Santa Monica but other Westside communities as well: What to do with a homeless population that seems to be expanding, increasingly desperate and, many would argue, more aggressive and violent?
In the past, most Westside residents considered the transients who gathered at parks and street corners merely nuisances who would loiter, pester passers-by for change and occasionally shout an obscenity or two, or relieve themselves in the bushes. But in a recent survey conducted by the citizens' group Concerned Homeowners of Santa Monica, a whopping 75% of the 1,000 city homeowners who responded said their biggest concern was not overdevelopment, pollution, or traffic, but the homeless. Many said they no longer felt safe walking their own streets.
Other Westside communities are grappling with similar problems, and some have responded by cracking down in response to complaints.
West Hollywood, which budgets $2 million a year for social service programs and is considered one of the most tolerant cities in Los Angeles County, early this year banished the community's free-meal program from a public park and prohibited sleeping there. Beverly Hills pays for homeless services outside its city line, and Venice outlawed sleeping on the beach three years ago.
In Venice, "Clearly, we still have a number of homeless people at the beach. There are some people who are concerned," said Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who represents the seaside area. And Malibu, some say, has been quietly directing its transients south to Santa Monica.
Hollywood residents are shooing transients off their streets, saying, "Hey, we don't want you here," Los Angeles police Officer Carlos Lopez said.
Santa Monica residents have reacted so strongly, they say, because the city's policies and programs have exacerbated the problem.
Santa Monica police say one-third of their annual budget and police time is spent on transient-related incidents and arrests. The number of transients arrested on felony charges has at least doubled in the last four years, and assaults by transients are up sharply, they said.
What is even more troubling, local residents and police say, is that for every highly publicized attack, there are innumerable smaller attacks and acts of violence and intimidation. City convention and tourism promoter Beverly Moore said such reports are starting to hurt business.
Tour groups and conventions are heading elsewhere rather than risk confrontations with aggressive transients, Moore said at a recent public meeting. She estimated that the city was losing about 5% of its tourism revenue this year as a result.
A recent poll of Santa Monica tourists and conventioners found that 40% reported having "disturbing, frightening experiences," Moore said. "This past summer was absolutely the worst. We are very worried about this summer."
Santa Monica officials estimate that there are 40,000 transients in Los Angeles County, of which 4,000 are generally found on the Westside, and about 1,200 of them in Santa Monica. Many gather among the swaying palm trees in Palisades Park while others frequent street corners and alleys.
City Atty. Myers has become a lightning rod for criticism because of his publicly stated refusal to prosecute transients for some minor nonviolent crimes such as public inebriation and sleeping in parks. Myers, who did not return repeated phone calls requesting comment, has said that such prosecutions would only clog an already overburdened judicial system and that intervention by social agencies is a better way to help the homeless.
Santa Monica resident Leslie Dutton, who has organized a petition drive aimed at replacing Myers, says the city attorney's lenient attitude--shared, Dutton says, by the majority of City Council members--"has led to a decay of this community" and has created an unsafe environment, particularly for the elderly and children.
Dutton's group, Santa Monicans for the Citizens Protection Act, is seeking to place an initiative on the November ballot to make the city attorney post elective instead of appointive. Group members have collected 2,000 signatures, but need 8,288 by June 11 to qualify the measure.
Myers, appointed in 1981, has drawn praise from some social service workers and activists who work with the homeless for his compassionate approach. Some police and city administrators concede that the problem is too large and complex to blame one man, particularly because it is the county-level district attorney's job to prosecute major crimes, and the task of judges to decide wether to impose harsh or lenient sentences.
Effective or not, Myers is a committed social activist who takes a personal interest in helping the homeless. He spends many Saturday mornings handing out sandwiches to transients who file in lines past City Hall.
In any event, the homeless are hardly a new political issue in Santa Monica. In 1984, for example, challenger Herb Katz won election to the City Council on a platform that included a call for a crackdown on the homeless. A year later, two councilmen called for Myers' ouster for declining to prosecute some transients for nonviolent misdemeanors.
Some say Myers is not the only scapegoat in the current controversy; that the homeless themselves are being used as political pawns.
County health officials estimate that one-third of the transients suffer from diagnosable mental illnesses. Vivian Rothstein, executive director of the Ocean Park Community Center, which runs five different shelter programs, said the mentally ill and other truly needy homeless are being lumped with drifters, drug addicts and career criminals into a "convenient package" that society can hold responsible for all of its ills.
"On the street, things are much more complicated," Rothstein said. "I think it is getting meaner on the streets. People have been out there much longer, and they are much more desperate."
The homeless are more often than not the victims of crime. Since 1988, police say seven transients were murdered in Santa Monica. Eigth other transients were arrested as suspects in those and other attacks.
At a public forum late last month organized by the Concerned Homeowners group to discuss the transients, hundreds of angry residents interrogated city prosecutor Gordon, three City Council members, and representatives of the city police department, human services agency and tourism promotion office. The officials said they are hamstrung by societal problems such as jail overcrowding, a lack of affordable housing, and inadequate programs for the mentally ill and those with alcohol and drug problems.
Few of the officials won much applause that day, except Councilman William Jennings, when he said: "What did Santa Monica do to become the homeless capital of the nation? We can't afford to become the Skid Row of America!"
While the debate rages and officials search for answers, Santa Monica has for the most part resisted pressure to cut back its services to transients, and spends as much as $1.5 million a year on the homeless.
Although a noontime feeding program in Ocean Park was cut back by more than 100 meals a day because of neighborhood complaints, after a six-month study, the City Council in late January approved what amounted to a $41,000 stopgap appropriation to deal with some aspects of the homeless issue.
Among the provisions: hotel vouchers for the disabled homeless, policing of liquor stores and the establishment of an advisory group of homeless people. And last August, at the urging of Mayor Dennis Zane, the city authorized spending $30,000 to retain a consultant to organize local governments' support for action at state and federal levels.