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City Officials Defend Homeless Policies

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

January 18 -- Santa Monica is number nine on a new list of the 20 “meanest cities” in the United States when it comes to passing laws against the homeless, and it’s a dubious distinction that has local City Council members miffed.

The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty -- a Washington D.C-based advocacy group that tracks the “criminalization” of homelessness nationwide – based the ranking on the number of municipal laws aimed at homeless individuals, their enforcement, the city’s history of “criminalizing” homelessness and other criteria.

“We don’t like to say that a city is mean, and we don’t want to say that the city, as a whole, is a bad or uncaring place,” said Michael Stoops, acting executive director of NCH. “We are only trying to draw attention to the fact that these cities are criminalizing the behavior of people who are homeless. Homeless people need our help, not more laws that hurt them.”

City officials said the report unfairly characterizes how the City handles homelessness, highlighting laws they say are on the books to assure quality of life, health and safety, while completely omitting steps taken to assist homeless individuals. They point out that Santa Monica currently spends $1.7 million to help combat homelessness, half of that amount coming directly from City coffers.

“I feel we were unfairly blindsided,” Mayor Bob Holbrook said of the report. “We have a very balanced approach when it comes to dealing with the homeless.

“God knows we are on the leading edge of policies in assisting the homeless,” he said. “With as much as we spend on homelessness alone, it’s not deserved.”

NCH officials admit that the report -- which focuses on a local laws aimed at curbing programs that hand out free meals, as well as on “a massive wave of new anti-homeless laws” being proposed -- does not take into account other policies the City may be enacting to help the homeless. Instead, the report only focuses on laws the City passed that make it harder to live on the streets.

“We do not balance the report against best practices or models to help the homeless,” Stoops said. “It’s also not the most conclusive or authoritative analysis.

“Regardless, if Santa Monica spends one million or ten million to combat homelessness, City leaders are still targeting the homeless with laws aimed at making life more difficult for the homeless,” he said.

The report states that “with the election of Bobby Shriver to the city council, homeless people in Santa Monica are facing what may be the single biggest push in the nation to pass a massive wave of new anti-homeless laws.

“The new collection of proposed city laws would make it illegal for any homeless person to set down a backpack for more than ten minutes on any sidewalk, lie, or sit, on any sidewalk in the city, shave, bathe, wash clothing items in any public restrooms, and sleep anywhere in a vehicle,” the report said.

“The laws would also sweep homeless individuals from all freeway sides and ramps.”

City officials dispute the accuracy of the allegations, and Shriver -- who is pushing to create housing for homeless veterans at the Veterans Administration grounds in Westwood --recently appeared on local television to stress the social services Santa Monica provides.

While City officials dispute that the City is “mean” towards the homeless, both Mayor Holbrook and Council member Richard Bloom said there are currently laws on the books aimed at prodding the homeless into seeking help.

Bloom also notes that the laws – which include an ordinance he co-sponsored banning sleeping in Downtown doorways – do not target the homeless.

“The reality is that the laws don’t say they are aimed at homeless people,” said Bloom, who is a member of a countywide task force on the homeless. “The law says someone cannot sleep in a doorway, and clearly it was in response to a large number of people who sleep in doorways.”

It is difficult, Bloom said, to strike a balance between protecting civil liberties and upholding community values.

“Homelessness is an unhealthy lifestyle and we need to understand that we can’t enable people to live on the street, and it should be a priority, when possible, to discourage it,” said Bloom. “The policies that we have all relate to health and safety issues.”

Holbrook agrees. “You are dealing with people whose lifestyles affect other people,” he said, “People have a right to live outdoors, however, in those instances where their sleeping and defecating in business owners’ doorways affects the community, we have to act.”

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