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‘People Have Always Been Homeless’

When the Santa Monica City Council passed an ordinance making it a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum fine of $500 and six months in jail to sit or lie down on the Third Street Promenade between the hours of 6 a.m. and 1 a.m., some called it the end of the socially conscious “People’s Republic” by the sea. Others saw it as a necessary step to protect the city’s tourist-driven economy from street kids and panhandling homeless who were turning the Promenade’s three shop-lined blocks into an urban survival course. The ordinance is based on a Seattle law that has successfully withstood a federal appeals challenge. Its effects will be reviewed by the City Council in six months. But will it or similar laws in other areas accomplish what their framers intend? JIM BLAIR spoke with businessmen, activists and the homeless.

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PHILIP DUNCAN

Homeless, downtown Los Angeles

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I’ve been out here almost two years. I had always been opinionated [about the homeless] and I found out that I was very wrong. There are a lot of nice people out here, a lot of good people.

The thing that most people fail to realize is that there have always been homeless people in America. During the cowboy days, there was always the town drunk. There was always somebody who slept under the bridge.

If you begin to deal with an individual as an individual, you’ll find that a lot of people really are more than what you think they are and a lot of people really are less threatening than you think they are.

The people who are part of the “homeless problem"--they scare me and I’m troubled by them. I’ve seen them scare some of the biggest, strongest on the street. And there are some people that aren’t necessarily homeless who scare me.

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An anti-loitering ordinance? I watch the police slow-roll by, looking out to see what I’m going to do. I don’t need to be ticketed for anything. I don’t need to be saved from anything. But I haven’t been wronged. I haven’t been hurt. There’ve always been people in America that have just quit. And I’ve just quit.

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ART PEDERSON

Homeless, downtown Los Angeles

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I never was a street person. I never spent more than a month or two off of work and when I did, it was to paint my mother and dad’s house or do something around the place. They’d cover me for the room and board until I got another job and I always had $500 or $600 in the bank for my car expenses.

It was circumstance that drove me into homelessness. The rents in the San Fernando Valley were too high. I had a one bedroom, then had to go down to a studio, to a closet and smaller and smaller. Finally, it got to the point where I couldn’t find employment and afford a place to live and keep a car in decent condition to go to work.

I myself have never had any hassle from the police. I’ve never had people really be scared of me. But there are a few problems I think other homeless people do have. A lot of them panhandle; I never panhandled in my life. I go out and find my own thing to do, my own work.

You can put an anti-loitering law down [on the books], but if you put it down too hard and too tight and if you don’t have the officer evaluate the person, it isn’t going to work fairly. If they’re loitering, give them a ticket. Write them the loitering, jaywalking or disturbing the peace ticket. If they don’t come to court, if they don’t pay it, put a warrant out on them.

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Now for about a week I’ve been out here on the street again, but it doesn’t bother me. I sleep in front of the Midnight Mission. Right in front or on the side. You’re safe down there, they’ve got lights on you.

And the police know if you’re down there, you’re not somewhere else. If they see you down there, they know damn well you’re not in West L.A. or some other expensive neighborhood.

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ROBERT SCHWAN

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General manager, Chaya Venice restaurant, Venice

I don’t think that just because you pass ordinances, problems all of a sudden disappear. Homelessness is part of reality and you can’t make reality against the law.

These are people who are obviously down on their luck and have problems. So they’ve ended up on the street. Maybe they’re wandering around, maybe asking for handouts, maybe they’re just living in an area around a business.

Because we have food, oftentimes people do tend to ask us for help.

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Most people have, I find, a surprising level of compassion for people who are in that state. On one hand, they don’t want to be obstructed from using our business, but on the other hand, they want us to have a measure of compassion and treat people with a certain amount of dignity.

Just as we have a police force to deal with criminals, I think we need a kind of social force. The fact of the matter is that usually the police are the ones that end up dealing with these problems, but they have the resources to deal with criminals, not with people who are socially disabled.

It would be incredible if, rather than just calling the police, you could call people who would have the wherewithal to deal with the problems of social disorientation.

Right now, all you can do is call the police if the situation gets too bad. It is very sad. What would help all of us most is to feel that we were a productive part of helping this situation, not seen as an adversary.

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JENNAFER WAGGONER

Chair of Side by Side, an advocacy group for the homeless, Santa Monica

I’ve lived here for about five years. I came to Santa Monica to go to school and I had housing and work. Then I became homeless, medically disabled.

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It was remarkable to find that the [homeless] people that I was meeting were just like me--young professionals, older professionals, people who had housing before.

My perspective on the ordinance, seeing how it has developed from community meetings, is that it was the business district’s reaction to things happening on the Promenade.

In the community meetings, there was a lot of talk that they had problems with homeless people, the youth and with people with animals; but this was a community process that did not involve the people who were creating the problems. Not one time did they invite members of these groups to participate and give feedback as to why these things are happening.

Based on the actions of a few, we have a reaction that covers everyone. This legislation takes away everybody’s right to sit down and relax on the Promenade. And we believe that it’s not going to be enforced on the entire public; it’s only going to be enforced on specific groups of people, like the homeless and the youth. We know this from experience; certain members of the public are allowed to break the law because they look like they have money or they look like they’re spending their money on the Promenade.

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FATHER RICHARD ESTRADA

Executive director, Jovenes, Inc., Los Angeles

Jovenes is a nonprofit, community-based organization that works with homeless, immigrant youth and adult families in the Echo Park and downtown areas of Los Angeles.

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But nothing works by force. I’m against any kind of anti-loitering laws imposed without looking at the issues of mental and emotional health problems and housing needs of the homeless, illicit drug sales, gangs and immigrants who are looking for work.

How many homeless people have mental problems? How many people sleeping on the steps of City Hall are victims of drugs? [How about] the “recyclers” who walk all night making their rounds picking up empty bottles and other trash because it’s too dangerous for them to sleep? And where are they going to sleep? How many women and children are living in cars or abandoned houses?

There are so few meaningful jobs for unskilled people.

We’ve got to look at family planning. We cannot close our eyes to the proliferation of the poor, the proliferation of the homeless having children that are going to be homeless, that are not going to have a chance.

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