Santa Monica Considers Broad Homeless Proposal : Urban life: With problems escalating, task force backs plan that is part crackdown, part social service response.
After years of warring with itself, the city of Santa Monica appears to be on the brink of adopting a grand plan for managing its large and unruly homeless population.
One of the nation’s most liberal city councils, forced into action by mounting complaints over a growing crime rate, unusable parks and a panhandler on every corner, is trying to figure out where to strike the balance between compassion for the homeless and the safety of everyone else.
The centerpiece for the debate is a comprehensive report, titled “A Call to Action,” prepared by a citizens’ task force and presented to the council at a hearing Tuesday night, where it was praised by city officials and members of the public.
The 67-page task force report calls for a combination of enhanced public safety--including “zero tolerance for crime"--and an ambitious array of social service programs that will stress rehabilitation over handouts. It urges a strategy that makes demands on the homeless to comply with behavioral standards and contribute to the community that is supporting them.
It also urges a strong effort to create affordable housing and shelter beds, with the request that the city relax its newly forged slow-growth zoning laws to speed up approval.
Perhaps the most visible symbol of Santa Monica’s compassion for the homeless, the daily meals program on the City Hall lawn, will vanish if the task force report is adopted. It would be replaced by smaller indoor feeding programs, linked to other services and requiring reservations. The theory is that such efforts offer far better potential for long-term solutions.
The city has a nationwide reputation as a haven for homeless people because of its traditionally relaxed standards and generous attitude and programs. The task force report estimated that 1,000 to 1,500 people sleep without shelter in the city each night--in parks, on the beach and in doorways, alleys and back yards.
“Santa Monica has been characterized by some of the critics of its policies as Skid Row by the Sea,” said task force member Conway Collis, a Santa Monica businessman and former member of the state Board of Equalization. “Unless the recommendations in the entire task force report are adopted, that could well happen.”
Responding to the pleas of hundreds of residents, the panel is seeking a law against park encampments, although that term was not defined and is likely to be a key point of contention in the continuing debate on the report.
Other standards for acceptable behavior in city parks would be made much tougher. Parks would be patrolled more rigorously by police, park rangers and outreach teams. The report specifically urges a concerted police effort to root out drug dealing, which in recent months has become a major problem in city parks.
The overall strategy of the plan is based on two premises. One is that homeless people will either comply with new behavior standards or go elsewhere, thinning out the numbers that contribute to Santa Monica’s problems. A second premise is that public safety cannot be sacrificed until permanent solutions can be found for the plight of the homeless.
The report also acknowledges a reality that has been difficult for the city’s liberal political establishment to face: No matter how often--or accurately--one blames Washington for widespread homelessness, municipalities have to take responsibility for peace on their own plot of earth.
“The national magnitude of the homeless crisis should not be an excuse for mismanaging the local crisis,” task force co-chairman Dan Kingsley, vice president of the development firm Maguire Thomas Partners, told the council.
Conspicuously absent from the report is a price tag, though the panel recommended raising up to $1.3 million a year by increasing parking ticket fees from $13 to $23. The report also asked for a one-time $500,000 grant from the city’s reserve fund. But most of the money would have to be extracted from the county, state and federal governments.
The 18-member task force included a minister, a rabbi, a homeless man, two developers, a bank chief executive, homeowner group representatives and half a dozen social service professionals. In spite of its diversity, the group came up with a plan that all could accept, with no minority report.
Several panelists warned, however, that their consensus was a fragile one, and urged the council not to attempt to approve the public safety recommendations without also adopting the services element of the plan.
“If the City Council were to adopt public health and safety only, that would be a disastrous political shell game,” Collis said.
The presence of large numbers of homeless people in the parks seemed to most inflame public outrage, and it was the issue over which the task force had the toughest time agreeing. The final recommendations support allowing the police latitude to enforce an existing law against sleeping in the parks at night, but stating that it should have a lower priority than prosecution of crimes such as drug dealing and aggressive panhandling.
Some other California cities coping with large numbers of homeless have closed their parks to everyone. Parks in Berkeley, Santa Barbara and West Hollywood are closed at night, for example. West Hollywood also has a tough no-encampment law that some residents would like to see emulated by Santa Monica.
Four Santa Monica council members face reelection next year, and a group of residents is threatening to place a strong anti-encampment ordinance on the same ballot if the council does not adopt one. If the council members needed any reminder of the need to heed the public outcry over deteriorating conditions, they got it with Tuesday night’s election results from San Francisco. There, former Police Chief Frank Jordan ousted Mayor Art Agnos, who was widely blamed by voters for mismanagement of the city’s homeless problems.
The initial reception to the task force report this week was cordial. It received endorsements from the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce, from the tenants-rights organization that dominates city politics, and from the city’s visitor and convention bureau.
All seven council members said they support the recommendations as a package. Whether they will actually accept them unchanged will become clearer next week when they begin their own discussions.
At Tuesday’s public hearing, the public mood was fairly conciliatory.
A plurality of speakers either praised or urged passage of the recommendations, but there was also a strain of skepticism about the efficacy of social service programs. References to the missing cost analysis received the most applause from the audience of more than 200.
“The citizens and the City Council should not be asked to sign a blank check,” resident Doug Brown said.
One speaker delivered 90 letters complaining about the “pathetic and uncivilized” condition of the city. Others adhered staunchly to their humanistic philosophy.
As if to underscore part of the problem, two homeless men disrupted the 3 1/2-hour hearing by shouting and demanding to speak. One was arrested and booked for public drunkenness. The other screamed his testimony with his back to the council.
“I’m turning my back on you because you deserve it,” said the man, who identified himself as Beloved Quail.