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On the Homeless Front

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

May 12 -- On a recent day in Downtown Santa Monica, Saad Galal was managing his souvenir shop in the usual way – one eye towards helping potential customers and the other watching a homeless man who had just wandered into his store.

Though Galal usually chases the homeless out if they smell or are harassing customers, the vacant look in the man’s eyes told him to handle the situation in a different manner.

“Within a few minutes, the man took his arm and went like this,” Galal said, making a motion across his body with his arm curved like a scythe.

In one movement, the homeless man knocked every item off a nearby shelf onto the floor. But Galal did not confront the man, who he feared was mentally ill. Instead, he cleaned up the mess and went back to business.

For merchants, such as Galal, dealing with the homeless is part of the daily routine of conducting business Downtown. To help them cope with the problem, the Chamber of Commerce has launched a program that provides guidelines for dealing with the hundreds of homeless individuals who gather in the heart of this beachside town.

Instead of relying on instinct, chamber officials hope business owners and their workers will reach for one of the 6,000 newly distributed 3 1/2 by six inch cards that will help them handle situations like the one Galal faced. The cards, which are similar to the ones the City began issuing to visitors, residents and City employees in March include helpful tips and phone contacts. (see story)

“If everyone responds the same way, then you won’t have situations as much where someone wants to do something out of the kindness of their hearts, but are actually enabling the homeless,” said Kathy Dodson, the chamber’s president and CEO.

The cards represent the first in a series of steps the Chamber is taking to address the daunting task of dealing with a problem Downtown business owners have consistently placed at the top of the list of their major concerns.

Other efforts include partnering with a local service agency to identify the mentally ill, backing a plan to house homeless veterans at a facility in Westwood and hosting an unprecedented summit April 28 with neighboring business chambers to focus on homelessness, chamber officials said.

“There is nothing like this in the past,” said Chamber Board Chair Eddie Guerboian, who owns a jewelry store Downtown.

Guerboian vowed to make homelessness his top priority when he was appointed to chair the board last June. “I have three years to turn things around,” he said.

His experiences dealing with the homeless on a daily basis at his own store near the Promenade helped Guerboian steer the board towards a unified stance on homelessness, he said.

“Some of the (chamber members) do not deal with the homeless and therefore don’t know the problems,” he said. “Finally they realized and have decided to come together to find a solution.”

More than others, it is the businesses Downtown that bear the brunt of the homeless problem in Santa Monica, Guerboian said. That is why he urges business owners and workers Downtown to get involved.

WHILE SANTA MONICA claims 1,992 of the estimated 88,000 people who sleep on the streets of Los Angeles County each night, the beachfront – specifically Downtown Santa Monica – claims the lion’s share of the city’s homeless, according to the county’s homeless census conducted in January 2005. (see story)

The census reports that nearly 500 homeless individuals were physically counted in two census tracts that encompass most of the Downtown. More than 200 were counted in the Ocean Park Neighborhood south of Pico Boulevard and west of Lincoln Boulevard.

Just steps from places to sleep, shower, grab a free meal from local groups that hand out food in the parks and panhandle change from the crowds that stream through the Promenade, it is not surprising that so many homeless gather Downtown, City officials said.

But it didn’t take numbers to bring the problem home for Downtown merchants, who deal with those who live on the streets perhaps as often as police, emergency workers and service providers do. And, over the years, each merchant has developed his or her own approach.

For 19 years, Patrick Fischer has tried to use respect as his guiding principal when dealing with the homeless who hang out around the pawnshop he manages at 206 Santa Monica Boulevard.

If that doesn’t work, a bat over the counter behind him is within reach to remind anyone of who’s boss in the store, which is a stone's throw from the Promenade and next door to the Mayfair Theater, a landmark movie house that has sat vacant since the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

“It’s a very difficult situation when you’re dealing with human beings,” said Fischer, whose gentle demeanor seems in stark contrast to the fiery tattoo climbing up one arm.

“You have some good, you have some bad. There’s no cut-and-dry situation across the board.”

Fischer’s policy is to take matters into his own hands when dealing with people inside his store, or when they’re causing trouble outside. He rarely calls the police, but he works closely with them on a regular basis, Fischer said.

“I know the cops,” he said. “They have a nightmare time out there.”
“I boil it down to respect,” Fischer concluded.

Two blocks south on Broadway, Laszlo Vandor, a hair stylist with David McCann’s salon, has taken a more active approach to dealing with the homeless on his block.

“I decided one day that somebody has to do something,” said Vandor, a Hungarian immigrant who has worked at the salon for five years.

Everyday, Vandor deals with the homeless who hang out outside the shop.

“They sleep, urinate, defecate, smoke joints and drink alcohol right out front here,” said Vandor, adding that it was worse when double benches were located outside his store, and the homeless would set up camp there.

Now, Vandor informally patrols his stretch of street with the help of business clerks who work nearby. It is part of a grassroots effort Vandor calls a “clean block” approach.

“A homeless person I was moving along asked me one day who I was and what I was doing, and I joked that I was the ‘block commander.’ It just kind of came out.”

Vandor the “block commander” considers himself a benevolent guardian, though, distinguishing the “good guys” from the “dirt.”

“I’m not talking about your regular homeless person that we’re telling to get off our street,” he said. “Many homeless are clean and make an effort to get up in life. I’m talking about the violent types who are overly aggressive.”

But when trouble comes – such as when homeless people steal from the liquor store next door – Vandor is quick to act. “If I see someone hanging out in front of the liquor store or around the corner, I call the police,” Vandor said.

When the police aren’t around, he’s not afraid to take matters into his own hands. In the latest incident, a homeless man tried to fight a store clerk next door, spitting on him and using racial slurs.

“I stopped doing highlights and went out and put the guy under citizen’s arrest,” Vandor said.

Laszlo Vandor launched an effort to clean up his block.

But the store clerk – a much smaller Asian man – didn’t want to press charges, because he was afraid and would have to deal with the man again.

Still, Vandor continues his patrols, which several neighboring merchants say they appreciate.

Carol Seo works at the liquor store next door to David McCann’s salon.
The woman smiled slightly as she talked about Vandor’s efforts, which she said she backs.

“I like what Laszlo’s doing when he’s around,” she said. “I feel safer knowing that he’s out there.”

Seo, who tries not to work nights because she feels it is less risky, wryly recounted her litany of problems with the homeless in the area, but seemed resigned to the fate that they will always be there.

“What can (the City) do to help?” she said. “We call the cops, but they just come back. They urinate and sh– in the alley behind here.”

Like Vandor, Seo said she distinguishes the good homeless from the bad homeless and the mentally ill homeless. She also deals with each person differently, even helping a few out, such as Charlie Nixon, who panhandles on the corner and helps with odd chores around the store, chasing away the more aggressive homeless.

Seo – who fears a confrontation with the wrong person and relies on Vandor, Nixon and the police to keep the area safe – said she favor’s the chamber’s efforts and likes the idea of passing out cards to put business owners on the same page. Still, she is skeptical.

“I don’t know if it would work is all,” she said.

Jiles August, who manages “The Spot,” a smoke shop on Broadway, said he would favor the chamber taking the lead to let area business owners know their options. But he wishes business officials would take a step further by having area businesses offer gainful employment.

“There’s not a lot of jobs out here, and for those who can work and want to work, there should be more opportunities offered by businesses around here,” August said.

Finding jobs for those who want to work and those able to work was a sentiment echoed by other shop keepers in the Downtown, including Galal, who owns the Tobacco, Souvenir and Gift shop at 104 Santa Monica Boulevard.

“This is a city of 84,000,” he said. “We should train them and find them jobs in Downtown. I would be in favor of that program, but it’s just a start. We need something bigger than that.”

THINKING BIG is exactly what the chamber needs to do to tackle the homeless problem, chamber president Dodson said. However, first, the chamber needs to start small, and the cards are a start.

“The response has been very positive,” Dodson said in mid-April. “Businesses received them last week and we’ve already gotten calls about what else they can do. This won’t make the problem go away, it’s just a way to deal with the issue.”

In addition to the public outreach cards, chamber officials hope local merchants will help in a pilot program with Step Up on Second – which specializes in helping the mentally ill – to have businesses identify those people who need psychological help.

Step Up on Second has hired an additional part-time outreach person, but hopes the eyes and ears of local businesses can point them toward the people who need help quickly.

“This is a part-time position already, we don’t need them to be spending time finding the homeless who are mentally ill,” said Dodson. “The businesses Downtown know who they are.”

The Chamber has also taken on the task of tackling homelessness in a more regional manner.

The board has voted to back using the Veteran’s Administration building near Westwood as a center to help and house homeless veterans, many of whom sleep on the streets of the Westside, which claims the largest share of homeless vets in the county, according to the census.

The decision on how the land will be used is pending before federal officials, who are expected to decide the matter soon. (see story)

In addition, at a historic April 28th meeting of the Westside Council Chambers of Commerce organized by the local chamber, business leaders addressed key problems the homeless pose in larger business communities, as well as explored potential solutions to the problem.

The Chamber has been hard at work organizing the meeting, which was not open to the public and was informational in nature, Dodson said, adding that she hopes it will be only the first of many meetings to address the issue.

“There seems to be a real change in the City Council and the area’s approach to homelessness that has been very positive,” she said. “The top leaders for Westside Chambers were in attendance.

“We want to take action to get people together and examine what are some really fresh ideas out there,” said Dodson, who noted that there has been more of a political will to act on the issue of homelessness, both locally and in regional governments.

City Council member Bobby Shriver, who is spearheading the effort to house homeless veterans at the VA facility in Westwood, has been urging greater political involvement. (see story)

“Individuals can have a positive impact by letting their elected officials know that more and more people are following this issue and expecting them to act,” Shriver said. “Homelessness is a political problem and has a political solution. Every political solution begins with pressure from the public.”

Shriver urges writing to county supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who represents the Westside; L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and members of the City Council. Santa Monica council member Richard Bloom, a participant of Bring L.A. Home, a taskforce that spent two years carving out a regional approach to end homelessness in ten years, agrees.

“The public should pay particular attention to those politicians who profess that their communities bear no responsibility or refuse to assist in the solution,” Bloom said.

“Instead of knee-jerk refusals to accept any social services in our communities, the public should demand of their elected officials that essential services be provided in a responsible manner.”

The chamber’s efforts are no panacea to the vexing problem of homelessness, Dodson acknowledges, but they are a start.

“We wanted to tackle some bite-sized pieces to help us get a handle on the larger problem of homelessness,” she said. “We’re at the beginning of this effort.”

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