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No More Free Lunch for Outdoor Meal Programs under Holbrook Plan

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

August 8 -- Groups who use Santa Monica’s parks to feed the homeless could soon be paying for more than the sack lunches they hand out nearly every day -- nearly $40,000 more.

Under a proposal soon to be floated by Council member Bob Holbrook, the feeding groups would have to pick up the yearly tab City officials estimate Santa Monica spends to monitor and clean up after the “public feedings,” The Lookout has learned.

Currently, free meals are handed out either at Reed Park, Palisades Park or on the City Hall lawn every day except Monday, according to City officials.

“Right now we are spending nearly $40,000 per year to provide park rangers and clean up costs associated with the public feedings, and I was wondering why residents should pay for that,” said Holbrook, who expects to place the item on the council agenda next month.

“We’ve been working for quite some time to try and bring these services indoors,” said Holbrook. “And it’s okay if they continue to use the parks, but just like any high school reunion or other large gathering, they should pick up permits to pick up the costs.”

Those costs -- which food providers dispute -- differ depending on the length of time, number of people and type of meals served in a particular park, City officials said.

While monitoring and cleaning up after a meal program at Reed Park (where food is handed out three days a week) can cost an estimated $72.20, the cost can more than double at Palisades Park (where there are two public feedings a week) to $212.02, according City officials.

The new law, Holbrook said, would be enforced equally so that it doesn’t target one particular group of people.

“We’re still working on the proposal… but spontaneous groups who show up at the park would likely have to pay too,” said Holbrook. “If a hundred people gather in the park, they’re going to get invoiced.”

Yet food providers -- some of whom have launched litigation against a three-year-old ordinance to curb outdoor feeding programs -- see the move as another attempt to pass laws against the homeless.

“They are trying to legislate the problem of homelessness out of existence,” said Moira LaMountain, a co-founder of Helping Other People Eat (HOPE), which has been feeding the homeless at Palisades Park for the past 13 years.

LaMountain said she has weathered the cajoling of City officials, who are trying to move the programs indoors and tie them to social services, and the restrictions imposed by the 2002 ordinance, which has not been enforced because of a lack of funding by County Health officials.

LaMountain fears that going after the food providers’ pocketbooks could be the blow that knocks groups like HOPE -- which operates on a shoe-string budget -- out of the parks.

“This is a totally private venture, and everything is donated,” LaMountain said. “I do very little fundraising to pay for the plastic utensils and paper plates, and we don't have the resources to pay every time we have a feeding."

LaMountain took issue with the premise behind the City’s cost estimates.

”One thing I have to say to Council member Holbrook is that we leave the site cleaner than we found it,” said LaMountain. "And as far as the park rangers go, it's a total waste of City money.

“For an hour and twenty minutes, they just lean against their cars and watch as we pass out food," LaMountain said.

LaMountain said she could only recall two disturbances during the feedings, one of which involved a fight between two homeless individuals waiting in the food line.

"I remember I used my cell phone to call the police, and the park rangers didn't do anything but stand there and watch," she said.

Though police officials said they do not keep statistics on how many citations or arrests have been made due to disturbances in feeding lines, Holbrook contends that park rangers are necessary to maintain order.

“The information I’ve received from the police is that order had to be kept in these lines because arguments break out,” he said.

One of the three groups currently conducting outdoor meal programs echoed LaMountain’s concerns, yet pledged to not take the proposed law lying down.

"It will never happen because there will be legal action," said Christine Schanes, a lawyer and co-founder of the 18-year-old group, Children Helping Poor and Homeless People (CHPHP). "One penny extra is a penny too much.

“There's no doubt we will continue our program regardless,” Schanes said. “Once again they are working on the criminalization of homeless people. It's a sad effort on the part of Santa Monica, which, by the way, is unconstitutional."

Holbrook said he is “not concerned at all” about any possible litigation.

“If all are treated fairly, then there is no basis for litigation,” he said. “We’re just trying to recover our costs. If you want to use the parks for an hour, then you should pay for it.”

Food providers also challenge the contention of City officials that they would like to see the groups move indoors and connect the food programs to services for the homeless. LaMountain counters that no such offer is on the table.

"We were offered to serve food out of the parking lot at the Ocean Park Community Center, which is not an indoor site for one thing,” said LaMountian. “I don't believe that is a viable location.

“The parking lot is dirty, and Colorado (Avenue) is dirty,” she added. “People would be eating on curbs right next to the gutter. It's not a conducive place to eat a meal."

City officials who work on the issue of homelessness admitted that no such indoor location exists at the moment.

"In fairness, there currently is not a location that has a large open space inside," said Julie Rusk, who manages the Human Services Division and is the City’s top official on homelessness.

Though no location exists now, Rusk said she has asked feeding groups -- some of which have agreed to work with service providers -- to reorganize their meal services.

"We've had repeated meetings over the years with these groups, and given the configuration of space at the service centers, it would require that they break into smaller groups in order to go there."

At least on service provider, the Ocean Park Community Center, will soon be changing locations, and Rusk said they will have a larger, outdoor site available with tables.

While feeding groups and the City remain at an impasse, Holbrook -- who has not met with any of the meal providers -- said he would be in favor of a compromise.

“I don’t know if I’m in favor of building a new building to do indoor feedings, but maybe we could find a facility nearby to service providers, like a church,” Holbrook said.

The following Special Report ran in The Lookout in 2002:

Part I: Feeding the Problem?
Part II: The Cost of Free Meals
Part III: Food for Thought

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