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  Two Years After Crackdown, Feeding Program Problems Persist

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

January 17 -- Two years after the City began cracking down on some two dozen outdoor programs that hand out free meals to the City's homeless, only a handful remain, according to a report given to City Council last week.

Still, some City officials worry that the ordinance approved in 2002 has failed to link the programs to established homeless services and move them indoors, the two main goals of the law, which is being challenged in court.

Since the City began enforcing the new law in January 2003, four of the 26 public feeding sites identified in 2002 remain, but only one of the programs is currently linked to any formal homeless services, according to the Annual Review of the City's Coordinated Plan for Homeless Services.

While council members indicated things are moving in the right direction, some worried that the policy has not met its stated goals.

"I just want to renew our commitment to finding indoor feeding places," said Council Member Kevin McKeown, who cast one of the two votes opposing the law in August 2002.

"That's the right direction to be going in," said McKeown, holding up a copy of the first report on homelessness published nearly 15 years ago. "That's the direction we called out in 1991 when the first task force report came out."

The 1991 report, said McKeown, emphasized the need to link such feeding programs to services and move them indoors.

"That's one area where we have not had the success that I think we might," said McKeown, adding that it would help mitigate the "visible impression" of homelessness he said many Santa Monican's deal with day-to-day.

Human Services Manager, Julie Rusk, said in an interview after the meeting that moving the food handouts indoors was essential in stopping what she called the "revolving door" of homelessness.

"In addition to keeping up with the health code, moving these locations indoors and liking them with services makes them more efficient," Rusk said. "Just feeding people in the parks is not helping in getting people off the street."

The law was originally passed at the behest of Downtown officials and amidst growing concerns that food providers -- most of whom were from out of town --were only feeding Santa Monica's homeless problem by handing out free meals in parks and other public places.

Shortly after the ordinance was enforced, one group conducting regularly-scheduled feedings in City parks moved indoors. But other groups opted to split their distributions into smaller groups so that their activities do not involve 150 people and therefore do not require a Community Events Permit.

The law requires food distributors to obtain permits every 90 days from City and the Los Angeles County Department of Health that are restricted to three per group or individual, with an events permit needed for gatherings of more than 150 people.

Both County and City permits, which providers are required to show at every location where they serve food, are free to non-profit food programs. However, they are good for 48 hours and could take more than a week to obtain from the County, which scrutinizes every application.

Last week's update on feeding programs comes as part of a larger annual report on Santa Monica's homeless problem, which also noted that nearly 600 fewer people received services from nine area non-profits in the 2003-04 fiscal year, compared to the previous year.

Rusk said she was unsure if there was any correlation between the drop in feeding programs and the drop in the number of people serviced.

Also mentioned in the current report was a proposal for a pilot program to curb chronic homelessness and the possible establishment of a "sober center" to cut down on the problem of public drunkenness, which drains City emergency services.

City Council members praised staff for their work and accepted the report without any amendments.

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