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Park’s Transients Displaced : Homeless: The destitute roam the city while Pershing Square undergoes a $14-million renovation to make it ‘accessible to everyone.’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Fatigue hangs like a heavy blanket over Coolie these days.

The 32-year-old homeless man used to sleep in Pershing Square by day but now wanders the streets before he heads over to the downtown warehouse district to load trucks at night.

The city closed Pershing Square on Aug. 17 to begin a $14-million renovation, forcing Coolie and others like him to find resting places elsewhere.

“I’d hang out a lot in the park, because you can sleep and nobody bothers you. I need the energy because I load trucks at night,” Coolie said.

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The sporadic job provides him about $20 a night, $50 if a truck driver is feeling generous, Coolie said one evening as he sat on a piece of cardboard in front of a closed store near the 126-year-old park.

“They don’t let you sleep in the shelters during the day. You find places to sit (on the street) and the police tell you to move.”

In mid-August, metal-and-plastic fencing was placed around Pershing Square, downtown’s largest and oldest piece of open space. The renovation, to take 16 months, has been sought for years by local property owners.

A $6-million grant from the Community Redevelopment Agency and an $8-million tax assessment on area property owners will fund the project, which includes the addition of a 120-foot stucco tower, an amphitheater, a snack stand and a pond. More trees will be planted and a sculpture garden will accommodate the memorials formerly scattered throughout the park.

Late last month, backhoes began digging up the trees and monuments, which will be stored. Built over a three-level parking garage that was completed in 1952, the park became a haven for drug dealers, panhandlers and homeless people, even as skyscrapers popped up around it. After the square enjoyed a rushed $1-million face-lift for the 1984 Olympics, local property owners decided to tax themselves to completely refurbish the park.

“The overriding purpose is to create a square not only physically accessible, but visibly accessible, to everyone,” said John McAlister, president of the 18-member Pershing Square Property Owners Assn.

The association realized that the park closure would affect not only local office workers who brown-bag lunch in the square but strollers from a nearby senior apartment complex. So the group enlisted the help of the Homeless Outreach Program to spread word of the closing and inform the homeless about local social services and shelters.

Three weeks before the barricades went up, Homeless Outreach workers talked to a daily average of 140 homeless people in and around the square, according to Mike Neely, a former homeless person who founded the outreach program.

“Most expressed bewilderment because there is nowhere else to go,” Neely said. “The homeless, just like other people, used the park during the day.”

But Neely praised the association for its concern and attempt to ease the transition. “It was accomplished in a relatively peaceful manner.”

However, those stuck on the streets criticized the city and property owners for spending money on the park rather than on services for the needy. “Money talks, and the poor walks,” said Harvey Thornsburg, 29, waking from a nap in front of a Hill Street store.

The street people said they feared that they will be kept out of the renovated park. But Neely said he and other social service representatives are talking with McAlister’s group to make sure the transients aren’t shut out.


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