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Council Approves Measures to Curb Feeding, Sleeping

By Oliver Lukacs

Oct. 9 -- In the glare of the media spotlight, the City Council Tuesday night approved two measures that amount to Santa Monica's first crackdown on the homeless in a decade.

Voting 5 to 2, the council passed an ordinance that makes providing meals without County and City permits in a public park or space a misdemeanor punishable with a maximum of six months in jail or a $1,000 fine, or both.

The Council also unanimously approved an ordinance that tightens antiquated trespassing laws to prohibit sleeping between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. in storefront doorways in the Downtown. The law also would impose a maximum $1,000 fine or six months in County jail, or both.

"It's time to move ahead," said Councilman Herb Katz. "If we do get some control and get some enforcement from the County we can ensure that people getting food won't be poisoned, and we'll get back significant parts of our parks."

The council's decision came after hearing from 141 speakers, many of them homeless, two weeks ago. Many of those speakers returned under the leadership of the National Lawyers Guild to stage a protest on the City Hall lawn that mirrored one at the last Council meeting.

The ordinance "recognizes" a State health code provision that requires anyone giving food to the public more than three days out of 90 to get a permit, according to City Attorney Marsha Moutrie. The measure is expected to curb a growing number of food providers -- most of them from out of town -- who are blamed for feeding the homeless problem by enabling them to stay on the street.

While acknowledging a moral obligation to feed the hungry, Councilman Ken Genser said it must be done responsibly. "While it's not the intention of the meal providers, they send the message, 'Come to Santa Monica, come to the park, have a free meal.'

"This is not an ordinance to prohibit meal providing," Genser said, countering homeless advocates' accusations. "It is an ordinance to try to direct where those meals are provided."

Council member Pam O'Connor, who co-sponsored the law with Councilman Richard Bloom, said that the goal is to link the food programs to City-funded services intended to help get people permanently off the streets, as recommended in the 1991 Homeless Task Force report.

"I support the ordinance because it moves us closer to that goal," said O'Connor, referring to arguments that the more than 22 documented meal providers are undermining the City's social service system, an argument backed by the Annual Report on Homeless Services.

Julie Rusk, the City's human services supervisor, said the main problem with implementing links between City services and meal providers was "getting them to agree with it."

Rusk said meal providers object to linking up with existing City service centers, which would limit the programs to six locations that can serve a maximum of 120 recipients each. Most food providers oppose restrictions on the places and the number of people they can feed, Rusk said.

Mayor Michael Feinstein, who has opposed the bill from the get go, called the measure unconstitutional and said the law amounted to political pandering disguised as "tough love."

"I don't think the council under the seeming guise of tough love has made the linkages" between the behavior the law proposes to regulate and homeless people, said Feinstein.

"This is not about people getting sick from food programs" or about people not having enough space in the parks for their events, it's about "business forces pushing people out of the park," said Feinstein.

"I don't feel the process is being served by making the annual report on homelessness scheduled so close to election time," said Feinstein, suggesting that staff reschedule it in the future, "when the collective amnesia of the election cycle hits us."

Councilman Kevin McKeown, who is up for reelection on November 5, concurred that the problem the ordinance is trying to address " is not being created by people who have too much to eat, it's being created by people who have too much to drink."

The annual report stated that last year $1,826,722 was spent on services for 2,500 of the more than 4,000 homeless who circulate through city each year. The report found that the local homeless population had grown by 25 percent, mirroring a national trend.

Genser noted that while Los Angeles County spends three cents per homeless on services, Santa Monica spends $20.

Councilman Robert Holbrook asked Police Chief James T. Butts, Jr. and Fire Chief Ettore A. Berardinelli, to speculate on a dollar figure annually being "taxed" from other City resources by homeless people.

Butts calculated that, given that one out of every three calls fielded by his department was homeless-related, "maybe four or five million" was spent. Berardinelli could not put a price on the impact of the homeless on his department's services, but said that of the more than 7,000 phone calls his department received last year for medical aid, homeless people accounted for 20 percent of the calls.

Butts, however, challenged Holbrook's argument that homeless people were draining Police resources that could be used for other things.

"Santa Monica is an international tourist destination," Butts said. "It's not just because of the homeless, it's everything else. We are not in a vacuum."

Holbrook said he was concerned that the Police department's resources were spread too thin to enforce the new feeding ordinance.

While Moutrie said that "the County would be the principal enforcing body," Butts said his department could immediately enforce permit checks, but would need six months of training to administer health code testing.

"With the permits you either have it or you don't," said Butts. "It can be efficiently enforced."

Mayor Feinstein would later cynically predict that the law would be selectively enforced. "We're not going to enforce this on a Girl Scout picnic, or a birthday party," he said.

Before the meeting, people from the street, the neighborhood and the clergy gathered outside City Hall for a vigil lead by the National Lawyers Guild, which organized a food-line in defiance of the law.

James Lafferty, executive director of the Los Angeles Chapter of the NLG, said the law is unconstitutional -- a similar law passed by the City in 1993 was dismissed by a federal judge -- and vowed to represent anyone fined or arrested.

Gail Gustafson, from the West L.A.-based Vineyard Christian Fellowship, summed up the feelings of the crowd of more than 50, who held up candles and signs that read "Everyone Has a Right to Eat."

"An unjust law," she said, quoting St. Augustine and Martin Luther King Jr., "is not law."

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