Santa Monica residents by the dozens, some referring to their city as "Skid Row by the Sea," pleaded for relief from "intolerable conditions" at a public hearing on how to deal with the 1,500 to 3,000 homeless people who have set up camp in town.
Their pleas were countered by dozens more speakers who warned against equating poverty with crime and criticized those who would "hassle the homeless" by trying to roust them from the parks and into a designated area.
"What people don't need is concentration camps," Marc Grobman said.
Grobman was among more than 200 people who showed up Monday to present their views at a lively forum called by the 19-member Santa Monica Task Force on Homelessness. The task force has been assigned to devise a comprehensive program for the homeless to present to the City Council by the end of the year.
All seven council members have gone on record as favoring changes in current city policy to address residents' concerns about public safety.
"What we're doing now isn't working," Mayor Judy Abdo said.
Monday night's crowd piled into the stuffy council chambers and overflowed into seats in the lobby where testimony was shown on closed-circuit television. Although 137 signed up to speak, many left before their names were called as the hearing dragged on for more than four hours.
"What came forward indicated the full scope of where the community is at," said Rhonda Meister, task force co-chair and director of the St. Joseph Center for the homeless in Venice, after the hearing.
Frustrated residents spoke of everything from manners to murder. There was a tearful woman whose only grandchild was murdered nine years ago by a homeless person.
A Main Street restaurant owner spoke of her hassles with street people who urinate on the front door when she asks them to leave the cafe after belligerently demanding food.
An 83-year-old woman said she was too frightened to attend senior citizen events in the park.
Another resident, Richard Wechsler, said he was "tired and disgusted with the daily grind of putting up with the vagrants who patrol the streets. . . . How many more murders and robberies (will there be) before action is taken to control this situation?"
The bereaved grandmother, Charline B. Smith, said, "I feel sorry for the homeless," but she urged that a way be found to weed out the criminals, encourage people to work and to "get the drunks off the street."
Most people who vented their frustration with problems of the homeless, such as panhandling and sleeping in the park, tempered their complaints with concern for the truly needy and said they support services for the homeless if they are linked with programs to help them back on their feet.
A common suggestion was asking those who participate in the feeding program to identify themselves and enroll in programs that can provide long-term help rather than perpetuate the cycle of dependency.
If homeless people aren't willing to sign into programs, "we shouldn't be too concerned with them," said Duane Nightingale, a former president of the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce.
Nearly 20 people associated with programs for the homeless and at least as many homeless advocates argued against any crackdown. Many in their group were wearing badges, saying, "No Pass Laws, No Vagrant Laws. No Internment Camps."
The badges were made up by the Santa Monica Progressive Precinct Network, said one of its leaders, Elena Popp. The group was formed by City Atty. Robert M. Myers and others last year to defeat a ballot measure designed to get rid of Myers, who refuses to prosecute some nonviolent crimes associated with the homeless.
Myers remains controversial. Several speakers Monday night called for his ouster if he balks at their demands for a crackdown. One man suggested moving the feeding program to Myers' front lawn.
Ten homeless people spoke, including Tyrone Williams, who issued a poignant reminder to people to remember what it was like during the Depression. More than one homeless person joined members of the community in concluding that Palisades Park, on the bluffs overlooking the ocean, is unsafe.
Seeking to change the focus of the debate, many noted that the problem was not the people on the streets but those in power. Many pointed fingers at the Reagan and Bush Administrations. They called upon people to use their energy to demand affordable housing and other programs, rather than blaming the victims of a system without a safety net for those one paycheck from disaster.
Attorney Marilyn Spivey said she was appalled by the attitude of her north-of-Wilshire neighbors, who thought they have a "right to clean parks" when others are without a roof over their heads.
"There's a lot of self-righteous arrogance in my neighborhood and I'm fed up with it," Spivey said. "Come on, you guys. Let's have a heart."
Although much of the testimony was heavier on rhetoric than substance, some solutions were proposed. The issue of homeless people sleeping in the park was a prime concern of many speakers and brought calls to close the park to everyone, either after dark or from midnight to 5 a.m.
One of those favoring making the parks off-limits after midnight was Shane Talbot, representing the 175-member Santa Monica Police Officers' Assn. Noting that police officers have been in the front line of residents' complaints about the homeless, Talbot called upon the city to limit services to a smaller number of homeless people. Programs, he said, should be structured so that participants must follow the program or lose the benefit.
Representatives of the Chamber of Commerce, Concerned Homeowners of Santa Monica, Sunset Park Homeowners Assn. and the Main Street merchants' group also favored more stringent guidelines, with the park situation and the daily food handouts on the City Hall lawn prime targets for criticism.
Jean Sedillos, from Concerned Citizens, said camping in the park should be outlawed. People should be directed to existing shelters or a temporary city campground with strict rules, she said.
"If people aren't willing to take this step toward being self-sufficient, why should Santa Monica keep supporting them?" she said.
Merchants reported they are losing business, and the city is losing tax revenue, because of the city's open-door policies to the homeless. Laura Winters, sales manager of the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, said the hotel has lost out on six major events in the last year, four of them to hotels in Marina del Rey, because of concerns about the homeless problem.
Before the hearing, a group of elderly people belonging to the Citizens Protection Alliance, called a news conference in front of City Hall to protest the scheduling of the hearing after dark. The members said they were afraid to go out in Santa Monica at night for fear of being attacked by homeless panhandlers and thieves. Although it was daylight, the group drove home its point by having members of the Guardian Angels on hand for protection.
One of the speakers at the press conference was Frances Finnen, 91, who became a symbol of the anti-crime movement after she was stabbed by a mentally ill homeless person in a local supermarket almost two years ago.
"It's a wonderful city," Finnen said, "But it's going down."