The LookOut news

Council to Consider Feeding, Sleeping Ordinances

By Oliver Lukacs

Sept. 23 -- The City Council will consider enforcing strict health codes and making sleeping in Downtown storefront doorways at night illegal when it takes the first major step in eight years to crack down on Santa Monica's homeless population Tuesday night.

The two proposed ordinances target the food giveaway programs sponsored by 20 mostly out-of-town providers who are blamed for attracting more homeless than the City's social services system can bear and the homeless who subsequently stay and sleep in the doorways of Downtown storefronts, sometimes using them as bathrooms.

One of the proposed laws would make it a misdemeanor to distribute food without County and City permits. It also would impose a $1,000 fine and/or six months in jail for unauthorized food programs on public streets and sidewalks.

The other law would make sleeping in storefront doorways Downtown between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. a misdemeanor punishable with a $1,000 fine or six months in County jail, or both.

Mayor Michael Feinstein called the proposed ordinances a "dishonest attempt" by the Council to sneak anti-homeless laws through the "backdoor via false health standards."

"We all know that people are not worried about the food being prepared properly," said Feinstein, who added that he plans to vote against the measure. "It's about getting rid of the presence of some type of people in our parks that make some people feel uncomfortable."

But Councilman Robert Holbrook said he doesn't think the food distribution law goes far enough, although he plans to support it.

"I hate to have police officers act as health inspectors, it's not what they signed on for," Holbrook said. "But if that's what we got to do, then that's what we're going to do." He added, "If we ask them (the police) to do this, we got to back them up by voting unanimously and standing firm."

Some council members had considered limiting the number of people who can gather in public parks without a permit, but staff recommended enforcing State Health Codes before taking any further steps to address the issue. (The last time the City attempted to restrict the distribution of food by limiting the size of gatherings, the law was struck down by a Federal judge as unconstitutional.)

According to the findings for the proposed ordinance, the food programs "pose a significant public health risk" if they fail to meet County Health Department standards. These include providing adequate food storage to maintain "proper temperatures," having "limited sanitary facilities" and preventing food from being exposed to "the presence of birds and animals."

"The vast majority of food consumers are homeless persons who are particularly vulnerable to health risks because many have chronic health problems, and all have very limited access to medical care and sanitary facilities," according to the staff report prepared by the City Attorneys office.

Because food distribution falls under the California Health and Safety Code "the City must cooperate in administering" the CHSC permitting system "by approving locations for food service on City property."

The ordinance would require food distributors to obtain and display the permit. According to the staff report, "The City wishes to ensure" that all food providers "understand both applicable legal requirements and opportunities for contributing to City-funded services."

If passed, the enforcement of this ordinance would "presumably…diminish the number or frequency of food distributions in Santa Monica," according to the Annual Report on Homeless Services, which will be presented to the council Tuesday night. "Project participants will be unwilling or unable to comply with state and county requirements."

"The city's experience is that food distributions do not help homeless people change their lives," the report states. Moreover, the food programs "appear to attract significant numbers of homeless people to the City without helping solve their problems."

The ordinance banning sleeping in doorways at night also cites "public health" concerns.

"Persons camping in doorways use them as bathrooms," reads the proposed ordinance drafted by the City Attorneys office. "Depositing human waste in doorways adjacent to, or near, public sidewalks creates a significant public health hazard."

Mayor Pro Tem Kevin McKeown, who is running for reelection in November, called both ordinances a "short-term feel-good band-aid," adding that homeless issues tend to crop up during election season.

"This is nothing new," McKeown said. "But it is an election season, and in the heat of our election season posturing we shouldn't forget that our decisions affect real people."

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