Breaking Bread, Law for Homeless

Times Staff Writer

Advocates for the homeless in Santa Monica filed a federal lawsuit against the city Friday, then passed out brown-bag lunches to the poor at the upscale Third Street Promenade -- making good on a vow to defy "in court and on the streets" the city's new restrictions on public feeding.

The lawsuit, filed by the National Lawyers Guild on behalf of those who feed the homeless, challenges the legality of the new law. The suit asks the court to bar the city from enforcing the law.

"We are confident that Santa Monica's new anti-homeless ordinance will be struck down in court," said James Lafferty, executive director of the guild's Los Angeles chapter. "In the meanwhile, the National Lawyer's Guild will be proud to defend any of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit or others who choose to defy the ordinance and continue providing food to the hungry while the court case is pending."

The lawsuit names the city of Santa Monica, City Manager Susan E. McCarthy and Police Chief James T. Butts Jr.

McCarthy and Santa Monica Police Capt. Gary Gallinot said they had not seen copies of the lawsuit and declined to comment. The city attorney did not return a call seeking comment.

Once renowned for its liberal ways, Santa Monica made national news in October when it passed an ordinance that restricts public food distribution. Among other things, the law requires anyone feeding 150 people or more to seek a permit from the city and comply with the city's community events law.

Supporters of the law argued that it was needed because the city had become a magnet for the indigent and homeless.

Rather than seek social services, homeless people ate courtesy of about 30 groups providing meals and were the source of public complaints about panhandling and public urination. Supporters argue that the new law would encourage people to seek out social services.

But critics argue that the law is an attempt to rid the town of its homeless population in order to please business owners and shield tourists from their sight.

The lawsuit contends the city's policies violate the rights of plaintiffs and others to engage in "expressive, associational or religious activities."

The law, which went into effect Wednesday, states that "no person shall distribute or serve food to the public on a public street or sidewalk without city authorization." The penalty for violating the law is $1,000 per violation, six months jail time or both.

Carol Sobel, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Lawyer's Guild, said the law technically prohibits a wide range of activities, for example, a cookie-selling Girl Scout who offers free samples, or even a mother who feeds her child on a public sidewalk.

But activists acknowledge these would be unlikely targets of the law.

"The law allows city officials to make a decision about how it's going to be applied, without sufficient constitutional restraints," Sobel said. "It could be applied unfairly."

The law requires those serving food to comply with state health and safety standards and to receive a permit from the county Health Department. Lafferty said the requirements are those that restaurants must abide by and are inappropriate for charities that assist the poor. The cost of compliance would prevent most from continuing the work.

Lafferty and others called on the city to create a site where people in need can be fed and receive social services.

Still, those providers at Friday's protest called the law immoral and vowed to disobey it.

"We intend to continue helping those in need in the city of Santa Monica," said Christine Schanes, who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, along with the local chapters of the organizations Food Not Bombs and International Answer and individuals Deborah Baxter and Moira LaMountain.

Cliff Johns, who has been homeless for three years, volunteered to participate in what was called the breaking of the law when he accepted a bagged lunch of crackers, Vienna sausage, power bars and juice.

"I'd like a hand up," he said, after taking a bite of a cracker, "instead of a backhand."

The event was also an appeal to the public's conscience. Prior to a news conference, homeless people and their supporters marched down Third Street Promenade, past Starbucks and the Birkenstock store, carrying signs and chanting, "Don't turn your back!" and "Serving the poor is not a crime."

Advocates also issued an early warning to the city of Los Angeles, which is considering creating a similar ordinance restricting food distribution.

"Santa Monica's ordinance is clearly illegal, and just as we have challenged it in court, we are prepared to do the same with Los Angeles if it adopts a similar measure," Sobel said.

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