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Neighboring Residents Want More Guarantees from Common Ground in Santa Monica  


By Jason Islas
Satff Writer

April 27, 2012 -- Neighborhood leaders told City officials at a community meeting Wednesday night that they would not sign a Good Neighbor Agreement (GNA) with Common Ground because they worry it has no enforcement mechanism.

Some 50 residents of Santa Monica's Sunset Park neighborhood turned out at Olympic High School to voice their ongoing dissatisfaction with Common Ground's move from near Pico Boulevard to Cedar Street on Lincoln Boulevard.

While the meeting was called to discuss implementing the agreement with the nonprofit, which provides HIV education and treatment to the poor and homeless, it quickly became apparent that the residents don't think the agreement is enough.

“I don't know where we go from here,” said Zina Josephs, one of the meeting's facilitators and a board member of Friends of Sunset Park.

It is not necessary for Sunset Park leaders and members to sign the agreement, which can be signed by other area residents, but City and agency officials would like to see the group on board before the new facility opens its doors.

Julie Rusk, Santa Monica's Human Services Manager, said that although the City requires Common Ground to sign a GNA because some of its work involves the homeless, “this nonprofit is allowed to operate” in the area.

“Under current zoning law, they are within their rights,” Rusk said. “The City does not have any authority to say they cannot move here.”

But the audience did not take kindly to Rusk's explanation.

“I believe you've set this up to fail,” one audience member said, referring to the GNA, which is a good-faith agreement.

Another member of the audience said, “It's hard to go on good faith when there were so many complaints in the past.”

At past meetings and in e-mails, residents have said they had directly experienced crime at the agency's old location and that the non-profit's clientele had harassed them, engaged in drug deals or been publicly intoxicated.

When they complained to Common Ground staff, the complaints went unanswered, residents said.

The GNA is designed to preempt such situations, Common Ground officials said.

“In this agreement are very distinct operational procedures,” said Jeff Goodman, Common Ground's interim executive director and board president.

Goodman was referring to the two pages in the GNA that outline how Common Ground staff would handle safety and security issues – including singling out loitering -- as well as how they would keep a public log of incidents “brought to its attention.”

For many in the audience, that wasn't enough.

Residents demanded a legally-binding document that would commit Common Ground to several stipulations, most notably, the permanent barring of two programs from its Cedar Street location -- the Homeless Youth Prevention and Education (HYPE) program and a clean needle exchange program.

Recently, Common Ground moved its HYPE program, which Goodman identified as the source of many of the neighbors complaints, to a site in Venice where, he said, it will remain for the time being.

As for the needle exchange, Goodman said, under Federal law the Cedar Street location is not allowed to operate the program so close to schools. He said that unless that law changes, there really isn't a discussion to be had.

Some residents, however, said they would like to see Common Ground leave the city.

Toward the end of the meeting, two supporters of Common Ground showed up.

“I just thought we were going to sign the (Good Neighbor) agreement,” said Marta Perry, who said that the people Common Ground serves “are just as much a part of the community as we are.”

“They have a right to the services,” she said.

When the two spoke, members of the audience asked where they lived. Some jeered when the two revealed that they lived “near Joselyn Park,” which is across Lincoln Boulevard some three blocks from the site.

David Gardner, one of the two latecomers who came to support Common Ground's efforts to help the homeless, said, “I understand people's fears and concerns, but they do live in a city, and there are some things that can't be ignored.”

Gardner added that he supports Common Ground's move because of its track record of success.

“The fact that organizations like Common Ground can operate here is one of the reasons I think Santa Monica is great,” he said.

Whether or not Common Ground will be a source of problems for the Sunset Park neighborhood remains to be seen, since the Cedar Street location will likely not open for another two months, according to Goodman.

Goodman said he would gladly revisit the issue after the new location opens.

“I remain convinced that we will be a net positive to the neighborhood, and I look forward to resuming the conversation 30 days after we open to look at what will actually be the new reality, rather than speculate on what might be,” he said.


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