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Lies, Damned Prevarications, and More Damned Distortions

By Frank Gruber

Although the Eskimo may have many words to describe "snow," we, as has been said before, have many words for lying.

We can lie, prevaricate, dissemble, falsify, fib, perjure ourselves, deceive, equivocate, distort, obfuscate -- and that's just a partial list of verbs.

They all come to mind -- and quite a few nouns -- because the easiest way to get a handle on the controversy surrounding the plans of the City and the Ocean Park Community Center (OPCC) to convert the derelict building at 1751 Cloverfield -- at the corner with Michigan -- into a facility for housing the homeless and providing them with services is to examine the falsehoods and exaggerations that have been the fuel for so much hysteria.

1. Misrepresentation. The opposition to the new center comes mostly from the Pico Neighborhood Association (PNA), but PNA is hardly representative of the neighborhood. A couple years ago I researched a column on neighborhood groups and learned that PNA had all of about 125 household memberships.

The PNA board members who have most vociferously opposed the OPCC project -- Peter Tigler, Don Gray, and the rest of the right-wing nihilists of Citizens for a Safe Santa Monica (CSSM) -- are the same people who lead the opposition whenever the schools or Santa Monica College ask the voters for money, and to anything Community Corporation of Santa Monica tries to build in the way of affordable housing.

Yet whenever the voters of Santa Monica have the chance, a majority vote in favor of the schools and the college, and in favor of building more affordable housing.

2. Distortion. Although the site is within the boundaries PNA claims for the Pico Neighborhood, the site is not in any "neighborhood" if you consider the common meaning of the word. The site is surrounded by commercial and industrial uses, the nearest residences are 800 feet away, about as far as one can get in Santa Monica from residences, and the freeway is between the site and the residences.

The lies in the "public service" video PNA and CSSM produced to oppose the project would be comical if they weren't so vicious. Edison Elementary is not "around the corner," but on the other side of the freeway, a half-mile from the site. Grant Elementary is not "three blocks away," but at least five, and more than two-thirds of a mile. The Ralph's grocery store is, yes, "yards away" -- about 300, and on the other side of Olympic. The site is not "a block" away from "your neighborhood park," but several blocks and about 1,500 feet, if you're talking about Virginia Avenue Park.

1751 Cloverfield in context, looking toward the freeway (Photo by Frank Gruber)

3. Obfuscation. Opponents of the project say that it will bring skid row to Cloverfield and bring homeless people into their neighborhood. But, as opponents of homeless services always remind us, our neighborhoods are already filled with homeless people.

Santa Monica already has a problem with homeless people sleeping wherever they can find some shadows. The Pico neighborhood has this problem and so does mine. But we're not going to do anything about it unless we build facilities like the one OPCC is proposing, which will provide long-term housing for homeless people working to get off the streets, and services for others making the transition.

4. Exaggeration. Opponents argue that the Pico Neighborhood has an over concentration of homeless services, but that's not quite the case.

Most services that deal with homeless people directly off the street are located downtown, including three of OPCC's operations (including the one that has to move), the Salvation Army, and SAMOSHEL.

Two service providers, Chrysalis, on Lincoln, and the Clare Foundation, on Pico near Lincoln, operate on the edge of the Pico Neighborhood, but neither of them deal primarily with clients coming off the street -- Chrysalis finds jobs, and Clare works with both housed and homeless alcoholics and addicts.

OPCC operates transitional housing programs on 16th Street north of Broadway next to its administrative offices. For reasons that at least I have never understood, PNA includes the blocks north of Colorado as part of the Pico Neighborhood, and for that reason claims these programs are within the Pico Neighborhood. But this area, which is separated from the bulk of the Pico Neighborhood by the freeway and the industrial strip north of the freeway, is more properly part of Mid-City.

There are some privately-funded mental health and sobriety programs that do not receive City funds operating in the Pico Neighborhood, but they do not deal generally with homeless people off the street.

5. Over-simplification. Opponents also argue that Santa Monica is once again spending its money to provide services to the homeless that the rest of government -- other cities, the county, the state and the feds -- refuse to fund. There is some truth to this, in that other governments don't spend enough on services for homeless people, but it's not quite true that Santa Monica is spending its own money on this project.

Most ($4.7 million) of the $7.4 million in housing funds the City is providing comes from bonds the City's Redevelopment Agency issued against incremental property tax revenues generated within two Ocean Park redevelopment projects that were created more than 40 years ago.

These projects now include the Santa Monica Shores apartments and the Sea Colony condominiums. While the history of these projects is fascinating -- involving the worst of 1950's era "urban renewal -- the steady and sometimes spectacular appreciation in the value of Ocean Park real estate, and in particular the recent sale of Santa Monica Shores, have led to a huge increase in the value of the "tax increment" the Redevelopment Agency diverts from the treasuries of the City, the County and the State.

While one can argue that it's terrible for redevelopment agencies to be able to skim all that tax revenue from other governmental agencies, particularly from the schools, the fact is that all the money that the Redevelopment Agency is using for the OPCC project is tax increment money, and only a small amount of that would have gone to the City if the redevelopment projects didn't exist.

Under the law applicable to those redevelopment projects the City did not need to use the tax increment money for housing, but awhile back the City Council made the reasonable and right decision to dedicate 100 percent of the money to affordable housing -- a reasonable and right decision because so many low-income people lost their housing when those blocks near the beach were "urban renewed."

Seventy-five percent of the OPCC project will be housing -- housing for formerly homeless people making the move from the streets to their own apartments.

Some people have argued that a better use of housing money would be to build more low-income apartments. There are, however, other ways to build housing for people who can pay at least some rent, but no one other than service providers like OPCC is going to build housing for people who absolutely can't pay for it. That's why the OPCC project is an appropriate use of the Redevelopment Agency's housing funds.

Similarly, the City's TORCA funds may also be used for temporary housing, and this is also a reasonable and right use for them.

6. Calculated hysteria. As all opponents of anything do, PNA and CSSM have raised the usual cry about the City trying to do something in the dead of night, without notice to anyone, without "process."

Yet notice was given to everyone around the site, various commissions and the Chamber of Commerce have considered the project (albeit, hysterically), and now the City Council is going to conduct a wide-open hearing.

This is the process.

So what do I think about the OPCC project? Like everyone else, my views are mixed.

Cloverfield is a busy, even brutal street, with cars racing to and from the freeway. The site is not convenient to where most homeless people are, and I wonder if the location is the best imaginable from a therapeutic standpoint for people trying to get off the streets.

But if John Maceri and the rest of the staff at OPCC, who know more than anyone else in town about how to deal with homeless people, are willing to use the site, if they feel it's the best available solution, then I'm not going to second guess them.

I don't consider myself soft on the homeless issue, unless believing that homeless people are human and deserve to be treated as such constitutes soft. I believe that it's inherently dangerous to sleep outside in an urban area, and since the criteria for civil commitment includes being a danger to oneself, I believe government should use its powers of civil commitment to get people off the streets.

But, of course, that would mean spending money that most people in our "greatest civilization of all time" and certainly all right-wing nihilists don't want to spend.

We have seen fit to tear down the flophouses that used to house the binge drinkers who did much of the menial and seasonal labor that no longer exists, we've closed the mental institutions, we've not built enough housing because we're afraid of urban life, and we've built nothing to take the place of all those beds.

We don't like the situation, but it's our own damn fault.

No site is going to be perfect for providing the kind of services OPCC provides to Santa Monica's homeless population. But it's important to realize that all of us who believe the homeless are a problem are OPCC's clients, too.

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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