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A Call for Good Will : Homeless: The council’s push to consider the task force plan in the holiday season is calculated to generate support. It also has political motives.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At a time when most people are decking the halls and fighting the malls, the Santa Monica City Council is pondering a plan for the homeless that they hope will bring peace to their plot of earth.

The stakes are big and divisions are deep, yet the official spin of the politicians and the homeless task force is a call for consensus and coming together in this season of professed good will.

In case anyone missed the point, the Santa Monica High School chorus serenaded those who attended a public hearing last week with, “Deck the Halls” and “Joy to the World.”

After being infused with that Christmas feeling, some people did seem to temper their usual anger over the growing crime rate, unusable city parks and pervasive panhandling.

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“The timing (of the hearing) was tailor-made for those who want to have a very liberal homeless policy,” said Jean Sedillos, chair of a residents group working to, as their badges read, “Save Our City.”

“People feel a little bit guilty about saying at Christmastime what they feel comfortable saying in January,” she said.

Councilman Herb Katz, who is not a member of the council’s liberal majority, said the holiday timing was not auspicious for anyone seeking a crackdown on the behavior of the homeless.

“Any time you bring up anything about someone less fortunate than yourself at Christmastime, you’re shooting yourself in the foot,” Katz said.

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Actually, the homeless task force had asked for extra time to correct the glaring omission of a cost analysis from their report, something that has been a focus of criticism. They were turned down by council members on grounds that the public was promised that the comprehensive plan would be in hand before the end of the year.

But the politicians had their own reasons for wanting to get the plan signed, sealed and delivered before Santa makes his rounds. Four of them are up for reelection next November--Mayor Ken Genser, Judy Abdo, Katz and whoever is appointed to succeed Dennis Zane when he steps down. Zane had earlier said he would resign at the end of this year, but now he has delayed his departure into next year, partly in order to deal with the plan for the homeless.

Katz, one of two on the seven-member council who is not backed by the powerful tenants group Santa Monicans for Renters Rights, has aligned himself with residents clamoring for streets and parks they can once again feel safe in.

He acknowledges that in addition to genuine concern about getting a handle on the homeless situation, “there’s a lot of politics” in the timing and strategy of the debate over the recommendations of a citizens task force. “The renters’ rights people are well aware the citizens of Santa Monica are up in arms. They’re hoping it will die down before the election. As far as I’m concerned it’s just the beginning.”

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Thus, if as many suspect, voters are upset enough to show their displeasure at the polls, the incumbents who have let the problem get out of hand might face the same retribution as San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos. Agnos was defeated last week by former police chief Frank Jordan, in part because of citizen distress over the city’s management of the homeless population.

In recent years SMRR, as the tenants group is known, has dominated city elections, thanks to its staunch advocacy of strict rent controls. Under normal conditions, the group would be expected to continue doing just that.

But if there’s one issue with a fighting chance of weakening SMRR’s stranglehold, it is public safety, particularly in city parks.

The Save Our City group has issued an ultimatum to the council: If a stringent ordinance against encampments in the parks is not enacted, the residents group will seek one with an initiative, placed on the ballot for next fall’s election--the same ballot on which the council members must run. Presumably, those who would come out to support a no-encampment measure would not be inclined to return to office those they blame for the homeless crisis.

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“The no-camping train has left the station,” said Sedillos at Tuesday’s hearing. “You five council members should get on the train or get off the tracks.”

The Save Our City group sent out 19,000 mailers bearing a cartoon that has been catching on as the slogan of those discontented with city homeless policies: “Greetings from Santa Monica--Skid Row by the Sea.”

At the hearing, Sedillos delivered about 2,500 signatures on cards calling for a strong law against encampments. Cards continue to come in, Sedillos said.

Katz and Councilman Robert T. Holbrook said they support a no-encampment ordinance with teeth. The homeless task force also recommends such a law, although the panel’s 67-page report avoided specifics about what it should contain.

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In general terms, the task force has recommended an expansion of social services and housing programs for the homeless aimed at rehabilitation, combined with a crackdown on misbehavior that threatens public safety. On Tuesday, the City Council will discuss--and may even vote on--the report.

All council members have said they favor the report’s conclusions in general.

Task force members warn that the plan is a carefully wrought compromise that could disintegrate if the City Council starts picking it apart and making significant changes.

What to do about homeless people sleeping in the parks was the issue over which the task force had the toughest time reaching agreement. Some members of the panel say the job became considerably more difficult in September when the City Council unexpectedly asked the city manager and police chief to enforce an existing law prohibiting sleeping in the parks between midnight and 5 a.m.

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The issue heated up even more soon afterward when City Atty. Robert M. Myers went public with a stinging memo to the council blasting their actions as unfair to the homeless and unworthy of a group with a nationwide reputation for liberalism. Myers wrote that the homeless should not be subjected to “the indignity of a criminal arrest solely because our society has failed in its commitment to provide affordable housing.”

A month later, in a report requested by the council, Police Chief James T. Butts took an opposing view. He said a stepped-up law enforcement effort in the parks had demonstrated that the presence of large numbers of homeless people in public areas was providing a cover for criminal activities, drug-dealing in particular.

Butts said in an interview last week that, as a result of hundreds of arrests of people for selling and buying drugs in Palisades Park over the last few months, the atmosphere of the park had noticeably improved. He said residents have commented that they feel safer in the parks, and he praised the task force report as a “very workable document.”

The sometimes prickly Myers was also making conciliatory sounds last week, praising the task force for a public safety plan in the “progressive tradition” that targeted specific criminal behavior rather than people’s homeless status.

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“Our prosecution policies are fully consistent with the report’s call for zero tolerance of violent crimes, aggressive panhandling and drug offenses,” Myers said.

Myers also has apparently had second thoughts about an earlier statement that he may refuse to draft certain ordinances that he believes are improperly aimed at homeless people.

“In 10 years, I have never refused to follow a direction of the City Council, and nothing causes me to believe this practice will change,” he said.

During the task force’s months of deliberations, about 800 residents wrote, called or testified in person about the state of the city, with public safety concerns the most frequently mentioned topic. Though the letters sometimes told horrific tales about living among the homeless, the same letter-writers often tempered their remarks with compassion, insisting they were not heartless beasts trying to evict the down-and-out.

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But many also argued that caring for the downtrodden should not translate into an acceptance of unsafe conditions. As Archie Arzooyan said at the hearing, “It is not negotiable, our security.”

Tuesday’s public hearing was tame by Santa Monica standards, though characteristically bizarre at times. One woman used her entire two minutes to sing the song “Lean on Me,” with its message of lending a hand to one another.

Two homeless men also disrupted the proceedings by shouting and demanding to speak.

Many stood their humanistic ground proudly.

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“I’m one of those bleeding hearts we’ve heard about,” Millie Rosenstein said. “I’d rather have a bleeding heart than a heart of stone.”


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