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The Epidemic

By Frank Gruber

Early Friday morning I cycled up Main Street, past City Hall, on my way to the Westside Shelter and Hunger Coalition's breakfast and awards ceremony at the Miramar Hotel. At this annual event, the Coalition celebrates formerly homeless people who have changed their lives, and honors those who helped make those success stories possible.

As I approached the bridge over the freeway, a man in a sleeping bag, lying on the sidewalk, was just waking up. Propped on his elbows, he gave me a bleary smile.

Top of the morning to you, too.

The Coalition's breakfast was a welcome respite from the "debate" on the homeless that has recently been roiling the city. It was good to hear not only the inspiring success stories, but also to hear from and speak with people who work hard to save lives, doing the work that must be done, on behalf of all of us and our supposed civilization.

If you have ever had a friend or relative descend into alcoholism or drug addiction, or mental illness, and if you could, ultimately, do nothing, just imagine how hard it is for strangers to help a drunk, or an addict, or a mentally ill person come in from the cold.

Each success story at the breakfast had a list of people and organizations to thank long enough to choke an Academy Award recipient. These thank-you's reminded me how much money, time, training, facilities, expertise, and compassion, not to mention an individual's own determination, is required to turn around the life of anyone who didn't reach his or her "bottom" until he or she hit the streets.

It was great to spend time with people like John Maceri from Ocean Park Community Center who walk the walk every day.

It was great to be in a room with business people, such as the members of the Chamber of Commerce's Homeless Task Force and representatives from the Bayside District, and other businesses, who have worked closely over the years with social service providers to respond to the problems of the homeless, and the problems created by the homeless, with compassion and realism.

But after the testimony at Tuesday evening's City Council meeting on the proposed ordinances to regulate meals programs in the parks and prohibit sleeping in Downtown doorways, the breakfast could only partially counteract a rapidly intensifying attack of cynicism.

I'm cynical about the tough attitude emanating from the new leadership at the Chamber of Commerce and other business leaders who want a "zero tolerance" crackdown against the homeless, and who have formed a new "Public Safety Committee" at the Chamber. They want the Chamber to take on the homeless directly, with tough means hinted at darkly, and they've turned their back on the good work of the (Chamber's Homeless Task Force. ("Chamber Forms Committee to Crack Down on Homeless," Sept. 6)

From what they would tell you, the homeless are destroying business Downtown. Yet business is good. In the first quarter of 2002, when you would have thought Santa Monica businesses would have been dying from the post-9/11 drop in tourism, a declining economy, and -- remember last year's crisis? -- the construction of the transit mall, retail sales on the Promenade were actually up 6.1 percent from the year before. ("Downtown Businesses Weather Tough Times," Sept. 16)

The only place in the city where retail sales decreased significantly was Santa Monica Place, a private mall that is the only retail space in Santa Monica not directly affected by the homeless.

If the presence of homeless people is so bad for business, why do the owners of Santa Monica Place want to spend tens of millions of dollars to open the mall up and run the Promenade and all its vagabonds through it?

Yet I am just as cynical about the groups from outside Santa Monica who provide meals in the parks for homeless people without any regard to the City's programs for helping people get off the streets.

I have doubts that the City can end these meals programs in a manner consistent with the Constitution, but why do I get the feeling that these good Samaritans are more interested in their own salvation than the needs of their "clients?"

Take Russell Calleros, the Director of Community Service & Justice from Loyola Marymount who has his students picnic for half an hour or so each Tuesday with the homeless in Reed Park. Here's a quote from the LMU website describing the program: "Students travel to this park with the idea of nourishing those in need, but they are the ones who actually leave feeling nourished!"

LMU brings these kids and their sandwiches to Santa Monica, instead of nearby Westchester, because, Calleros says, there are more homeless here.

Some "fisher of men," this Calleros. If the LMU students distributed sandwiches in a Westchester park every Tuesday, my guess is they'd soon have a flock, to mix Biblical metaphors. But I suppose that would upset LMU's neighbors and who would that nourish?

By lacking the courage to deal with the problems of the homeless in their own communities, these self-righteous do-gooders do them a double disservice. Not only do they fail the stranger in their midst, but by ignoring them they perpetuate the politics of denial -- the notion that homeless people are some other community's problem.

At the same time, ever more homeless people attracted to Santa Monica anger voters here who naturally believe that no one is doing anything about the problem, notwithstanding the City's considerable efforts.

I'm cynical, too, about the political rant from the left. This is not about capitalism. As mean spirited as some business people are, they are not upset about poor people, they are upset about people who have diseases -- alcoholism, addiction, mental illness. Perhaps this is just as bad, or even worse, depending if you think there is a moral difference between poverty and illness, but class struggle has as much to do with it as it would with an outbreak of leprosy.

I'm cynical about no-growthers who whine about the crisis in affordable housing when over the years they have done their best to stop the building of apartments all over the Westside, including in Santa Monica.

I'm even cynical about the homeless themselves and their apologists, or at least some of them who testified Tuesday night, who seem to think that being drunk excuses being disorderly.

Mostly I'm cynical about all of us who don't like looking at the homeless but who won't face up to the price of making a dent in the problem. No one wants to pay the taxes necessary for a mental health system that might be able to deal with people deranged or sick enough to spend their lives dying in our streets.

Instead we want to make sleeping on the street criminal without even providing enough beds for these potential criminals to "flop" in.

If people were slowly dying in our streets of cancer, wouldn't we do something about it?

Problems seem intractable because people try to solve them using means that conform to their own preconceptions, as grist for their conceptual mills. If everyone tried to look at intractable problems from different perspectives, perhaps these problems would not be intractable.

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No one else is counting, but this is my 100th column for The Lookout. Thanks to everyone at the site, to my family, and to anyone who takes time each week to read what I say.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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