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Part III: Food for Thought

By Oliver Lukacs

August 1, 2002 -- Heeding the cry of Downtown merchants, who note that the homeless again topped the list of resident complaints last year, City officials are scrambling to design a legal tool that can curb feeding programs while passing the constitutional acid test.

In a call for action boldly stated in a letter to the City Council Wednesday, the Bayside Board reiterated a unanimous vote last Wednesday to recommend restricting public feeding programs by limiting "the number of people served, the frequency of the feedings or any other means."

The letter comes in the midst of a series of articles by The Lookout that chronicled how the 22 feeding programs documented by the City -- most of which are from out of town -- are undermining a decade-old social service system that uses food to help the homeless get off the streets, not to keep them there.

"We have heard complaints about the parks and other public areas being monopolized by a select few, leaving our public areas inaccessible to all," wrote Ann Greenspun, who chairs the board's Ad Hoc Public Safety Committee. She added that, "The problems do not lie with the social service agencies located in Santa Monica, but outside the systems supported by this community.

"The considerable number of feeding programs are not connected, in any way, to social services," said the letter. "The majority of individuals or groups who provide food do not require permits by the City. The Board believes that strict boundaries on this activity will serve as a catalyst between food and social services."

But crafting an ordinance that withstands constitutional muster may not be easy. The last time the City tried to curb feeding by requiring a permit for gatherings of 35 or more people, the city attorney was fired for refusing to author such a law, and the law was later thrown out by a federal judge who ruled that it was unconstitutional.

In their search for solutions, City officials have convened a special task force made up of members from the Human Services Division, the Police Department, the City Attorney's office and the Parks Open Space Management Division. The task force's recommendations will be included in the annual report on homeless services that will go before the council on September 10.

"Our goal is to strike a balance between people's right to be in the parks and the need for homeless people to get services to get them off the street," said Barbara Stinchfield director of the City's Department of Community and Cultural Services.

The City's biggest challenge might be to craft a legal tool to restrict -- if not ban -- the independent meal programs, including an untold number that have gone undocumented, or to at least connect them with the City's award-winning social services network.

"We have not had an effective tool to persuade them do their work elsewhere," said Human Services supervisor Julie Rusk. "We've tried to invite, persuade, insist, ask, and made various efforts to encourage these groups to link up with the City.

"The police enforce what they can enforce, but they need laws to enforce," Rusk added.

After Santa Monica's public gathering law was dismissed ten years ago, a string of new laws were codified in 1995 as part of a grassroots-driven Public Safety initiative that empowered the City to get tough on the homeless.

Two laws setting closing hours and prohibiting any camping or sleeping in City parks still survive, but they have failed to make a dent on the feeding programs, which seem to be on the rise. In addition, efforts to discourage the programs by adopting county health standards into the municipal code so they can be enforced by county health officers have met with little or no success.

"That of course didn't stop people from feeding homeless people," said City Attorney Marsha Moutrie. "It just changed how they did it."

To avert the health officers, meal programs serve unprepared foods, such as cold-sandwich sack lunches. Although many homeless said they would much prefer warm cooked meats and soups, the cold food has failed to shorten the long lines, which can number as many as 300 people.

Bob Myers, the former city attorney fired by the council for insubordination, believes that if Santa Monica joined the get-tough movement sweeping through the country, the City would only be moving the problem not solving it.

"What cities have done around the country is basically pass regulatory measures that move homeless people from one person's backyard or front yard to another person's front yard and backyard," Myers said.

Beverly Hills, for one, has a generic permit process for all city park activities, according to Steve Miller, the Director of Recreations and Parks for the City. Miller noted that his city has only a "handful of homeless" who are fed by church organizations within the congregations' doors. "We do a lot of referrals to homeless through the police department," Miller said.

While acknowledging the City's impressive social services safety net, Myers, who started a now-defunct lunch program for the homeless on the City Hall lawn, said get-tough measures just "punish poor people," not protect public safety. As an officer of the National Lawyers Guild, Myers vowed to challenge any such ordinance in Santa Monica.

"If the city passes other ordinances, there will be lawsuits dropped by national lawyer guild attorneys challenging them," Myers said.

One of the volunteers at Myers' side handing out lunches almost 10 years ago was Moira LaMountain. She still runs a meal program in Palisades Park and is still standing by the former city attorney's side.

"It doesn't protect the public safety, it protects the housed public safety," she said. "There's a gross inequity about it."

It is the threat posed by Myers and LaMountain that could paralyze the City Council, Councilman Robert Holbrook predicted.

"The fear will be that we will be in the next massive law suit," Holbrook said. The civil liberty groups "know we are a rich city, and they know we can afford to pay their fees and they get free publicity."

To avoid falling into that trap, Moutrie, who is charged with the tricky task of authoring the law (if one is passed by the council), is strategizing with potential loopholes and legal pitfalls in mind.

"State law regulates temporary food facilities and if park feedings constitute temporary food facilities, if that's the case, then the persons undertaking that activity are only allowed to do it basically a few times a year," she said brainstorming on the City's options.

"The question would be then, 'How would you draw a distinct line between feeding food in paper bags to homeless people as opposed to a very large group picnic?'"

If the council chooses to take a legal course of action, Katherine Lock, who runs a small coffee-and-donuts morning feeding program from a local Santa Monica church, said she is ready to dodge the City's silver bullet.

"If they try and come to close us down," she said, "we'll just say, 'We're having a picnic.'"
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