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City to Shut Off Memorial Park Showers

By Gene Williams
Staff Writer

August 30 -- It was only 8 a.m., but the sun was already high and the air was hot and sticky in Santa Monica Friday morning.

A dozen homeless people were gathered in the parking lot of Memorial Park, some with a towel and change of clothes in hand, others sitting in cars and sorting through their toiletries, still others pushing their belongings in carts toward the public showers.

For perhaps 20 years or more, the showers at this mid-city park have been a favorite place for Santa Monica's less fortunate to shave, shower and brush their teeth. Although no one’s counting heads, park workers estimate that as many as 50 homeless people use the showers every day.

But on September 1, the facilities, near Olympic Boulevard on 14th Street, will close for at least six months while the City decides how the showers will be used -- and who will use them -- in the future.

The decision to close the showers stems from a City policy "to link supportive services with assistance in moving people off the streets," explained Acting Human Services Director Mona Miyasato. "Closing the showers is part of that strategy to get people linked to case management."

Although the fate of the facilities is still up in the air, those who use the park's gym and other recreational features will likely be surveyed, and use of the showers might be limited to people with a "gym pass," said Judy Rambeau, the City's spokesperson.

"The showers were originally built for the gym users, who don't use them at all anymore," Rambeau said.

The City is not trying to deny the homeless access to showers, Rambeau said, adding that flyers were handed out to "let them know that other showers are available to them.

“The neat thing about those places is they also have (homeless) services," Rambeau said.

The policy -- frequently referred to as "Continuum of Care" -- ties basic services, such as bathing, to rehabilitation programs and has long been the City's key strategy for handling and tracking the homeless.

To continue having their basic needs met, a homeless person must enroll in counseling, de-tox or other programs aimed at reintegration. But many don't want to take advantage of these programs, which often send them well outside of Santa Monica.

"A lot of resources they offer you, they send you to Downtown LA, and who wants to go there," explained Louis Fisher, a drifter who had just finished showering at Memorial Park Friday.

Like many others using the facilities that morning, Fisher had seen the City's literature announcing the closure and its list of alternative sites. He was already aware of those options, and at least one other -- the showers under Santa Monica Pier, which were not listed on the City's flyer.

When asked why the showers at the pier were not included on the list, City officials explained that those facilities are not linked to a service agency.

Some activists have been critical of recent City actions, which they say threaten the civil liberties of the indigent.

Earlier this year, the City Council asked for an ordinance to ban bathing and washing clothes in public restrooms after receiving what staff called "many complaints," a high percentage of which "involved the use of the restrooms for inappropriate purposes" usually by a "small number of individuals who monopolize" the facilities.

Although council members were quick to deflect criticism that the "bathroom ordinance" unfairly targeted the homeless, the new regulations will almost certainly make it more difficult for transients to keep clean without signing up for rehab.

Last Friday, most of the homeless at Memorial Park said they didn't want the services.

Getting ready to take a shower, David Graham sat in a friend's van and sorted through a laundry bag of clothes.

"You got to go to the beach after September 1 or sign up for St. Joseph's, but they only let about 15 people take showers there each day," he said of the Venice-based social service agency.

Graham -- who receives about $900 a month in disability payments -- says he doesn't know where he'll be next winter, maybe with friends in Arkansas, but one thing is for sure: "I don't want to go to the missions in LA."

A man named Manuel, who lives out of a 15-year-old Oldsmobile, said he had heard that the facilities were closing but didn't understand why.

"A little water can be a wonderful thing," he said. "A shower may just get a person back on track."

Until recently, Manuel worked full time at a supermarket and bathed daily, but now he's only working part time, he said, and so he can "get by" with a shower every other day.

Manuel said he's not the only one who depends on the showers to hold down a job. "Some of these people work at businesses where they have to dress up in suits."

Nearby, a 27-year-old woman in neatly pressed clothes was combing her long wet hair. The woman, named Angela, said she had given up her apartment two weeks ago and was living in a late-model van while she continued working to save enough money to move "back East."

Angela said she had seen the City's literature and knew the showers were going to close.

"I don't know exactly what their reasons are for doing it," she said. "It makes me worry about the people who have been coming here for a long time."

Gym Director John Hines, who has worked at Memorial Park since 1986, estimates that perhaps as many as 50 homeless men and women take showers there each day.

The showers -- three for men and four for women --- used to be open 10 hours a day, Hines said; then, about three years ago, the hours were cut back to between 6 and 9 a.m.

That's when Hines started getting complaints from gym users who could no longer rinse off after basketball or volleyball.

"It was a good thing at one point. Anytime you give free showers to the homeless it's a good thing," Hines said. "But then it manifested into something different."

"In the early nineties it started to grow. The crowd just kept getting bigger and bigger," he said. "There was people waiting outside to get in. They basically outgrew the showers."

Hines said he wasn't surprised by the City's decision to close the facilities.

"I knew it was coming. It was just a matter of time," he said, pointing out the park's increasingly heavy use by schools, sports leagues, skaters and others.

Service agencies listed on the City's flyer are anticipating an increase in clientele -- although they are not sure by how much.

"I don't know what the impact will be, but I'm guessing we will see more clients," said Julie De Rose, Director of Homeless Services at St. Josephs Center in Venice, which frequently gets homeless referrals from the City of Santa Monica.

To shower at St. Joseph's, you must sign up a day ahead of time, De Rose said, adding that the center's two shower stalls operate eight hours most days and serve about 20 people.

"Conceptually, I understand (the City's) point of view of linking the homeless to services," De Rose said. "But I don't know if closing the showers at Memorial Park is the answer."

Officials at SWASHLOCK -- the shower and locker facilities next to SAMOSHEL by the City bus yard -- were either unavailable or didn't want to speculate about the impact the closure of the Memorial Park showers would have on their facilities which, many homeless say, are already operating at capacity.

However, Tommy Welch, who "monitors and assists" those who use the six SWASHLOCK showers said he has "no doubt" that the closure at Memorial Park will bring a lot of people to the facility.

"If they're going to close Memorial Park, I can only imagine the increase," said Welch, who estimates that as many as 100 people already use the showers at SWASHLOCK in a day.

In addition, the Salvation Army -- which currently operates SWASHLOCK -- will be handing over operations to OPCC (Ocean Park Community Center) as of September 1, the same day the Memorial Park showers will shut down.

OPCC Executive Director John Maceri said he didn't now how much the Memorial Park showers were used and that it will take about a month before the effect of closing them will be understood.

"We'll have to wait and see," said Maceri.

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