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Part III -- Frustrated Residents Call for Crackdown on Homeless Crime
By Jorge Casuso
December 20, 2018 -- Crime and homelessness were often in the news in 2018, and although City officials were careful to separate the two, residents increasingly drew a connection.
Nowhere was this clearer than in the City's parks, where frustrated residents captured images of homeless individuals engaged in criminal activity and posted them on social media.
Residents Mount Campaign to Retake City Parks
When a graphic snapshot of a man masturbating in a Santa Monica beach park was posted last summer, it not only caused an uproar, it led to the arrest of the suspect ("Graphic Photo of Man Masturbating in Santa Monica Park Causes Uproar," July 13, 2018).
While it may have been the most sensational, the image posted on Residocracy's Facebook page wasn't the first to get a reaction.
For months residents had gone online to post pictures and videos of drug sales and other illegal activities by members of a homeless population they worried was taking over the City's parks.
One of the main targets was the Westside Vineyard Church, which provided free Sunday lunches at Reed Park near Downtown ("Santa Monica’s Reed Park Target of Complaints about Drugs and Other Illegal Activities," April 4, 2018).
In May, church leaders announced they would end the program after a barrage of complaints that the free lunches were acting as a magnet for more homeless people, scaring off others -- particularly families with children ("Westside Church to Stop Sunday Lunches for Homeless at Reed Park," May 2, 2018).
Residents also targeted a program that for a decade has been handing out free vegan meals to the homeless on Santa Monica's popular Third Street Promenade.
After complaints from area Realtors and pressure from members of Residocracy on the church where the meals were cooked, City officials announced the program would move indoors ("Free Meals Program for the Homeless Moves from The Promenade Indoors," September 14, 2018).
Some Blame Rise in Homeless Population for Crime
Santa Monica's homeless population continued to rise in 2018, from 921 the previous year to 957 people ("Santa Monica’s Homeless Population Continued to Rise in 2018 but at Slower Pace," March 7, 2018).
It was the largest number of homeless people living in Santa Monica since 2007 and proportionally higher than comparable cities in the region and LA county as a whole ("LETTERS -- MIT Economics Professor Gives Council Candidates Homeless Numbers Test," October 17, 2018.)
Fair or not, many Santa Monicans blamed the increase on rising crime in the beach City.
In May, The Lookout reported that violent crime had jumped almost 50 percent in 2017 over the previous year, reaching its highest level in two decades ("Violent Crime in Santa Monica Jumps Almost 50 Percent to Reach Highest Level in Two Decades," May 14, 2018).
When crime rose at a lower rate in January and February (5.8 percent), Interim Police Chief Kenneth Semko took to the internet.
He announced on the City's website that police had been re-deployed to provide “an immediate” impact on both crime and the community’s “perception of safety” ("Interim Police Chief Says Major Crimes in Santa Monica Up but Low by Historic Standards," March 9, 2018).
“Troubling as these trends are to all of us in the Police Department, the number of annual crimes in Santa Monica remain well below historic rates of crime from 1965-2000,” he said.
But the perception that the City was losing control over crime, especially in its parks, kept rising.
Commission Calls for Action
A Recreation and Parks Commission survey found that 84 percent of respondents expressed concerns about the presence of homeless in City parks.
Commissioners -- who had been hearing complaints from residents all year -- were concerned enough to ask the City to take immediate action.
In a letter to the Council, Commission Chair John C. Smith warned that "the safety situation in the parks and at the beach has reached a crisis point and that further action cannot be delayed."
The Council responded, ordering a special study session to help tackle the thorny issue ("City Council Orders Study Session on Park Safety," November 15, 2018).
At the meeting, City Manager Rick Cole gave an update on the City's enhanced efforts to tackle the problem, and he tried to temper the residents' fears.
Social media, he said, "may be 17 times removed from the actual situation.
"We don't want to deny that crime is up," Cole said. "On he other hand, it does no one any good to exaggerate the level of crime in our community."
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