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Council to Look for Ways to Curb Feeding Programs

By Oliver Lukacs

August 12 -- At the behest of Downtown officials and amidst growing concerns that handing out free meals is only feeding Santa Monica's homeless problem, the City Council Tuesday night will seek ways to limit the feeding programs held in public parks throughout the week.

Placed on the agenda by council members Pam O'Connor and Richard Bloom, the item comes in the wake of a three-part series in The Lookout that found that most of the 22 documented feeding programs are from out of town. The programs, City officials worry, could be undermining Santa Monica's vast network of social services by allowing the homeless to stay on the streets.

The item also comes one month before the council takes up the annual report on the state of homelessness mandated by the 1995 Public Safety Initiative and nearly three months before the race for three open council seats on November 5.

"This is a way to give staff a little bit of a jump-start in finding ways that we may need to tweak what we're doing," O'Connor said.

"What we're really doing is a curtain raising for what's happening in September," Bloom said. "Pam and I thought it was important to start talking about the issue now so that when we get it in September it is a little bit less of a political football, and we'll be in a better position to take some concrete steps."

If approved, the item -- which echoes recommendations made by the Bayside District Board last month -- would direct staff to "develop and recommend methods, including ordinances, to limit number, size, frequency, duration, etc., of feeding programs held in public parks and public spaces."

The council also will be urged to "make recommendations on related aspects that allow for reasonable provision of social services for homeless individuals and also identify methods that discourage unacceptable social behaviors."

Foremost, the council will be exploring ways to limit the feeding programs run by out-of-town fly-by-night organizations, which O'Connor said, "are having a negative impact on the City… and are growing in an exponential fashion.

"I think it [the meal programs] provides a real disservice to homeless folks. To lure them here with a meal, and then these folks walk away, they go back to their community, they go back to their home, but they leave the person that they fed here in Santa Monica. We have a limited number of beds, but we can't house the world."

O'Connor, who is running for a third term in November, noted that nothing is yet etched in stone and that the purpose of the discussion will be to identify the legal tools that are at hand to hammer out a long-term solution.

"I don't know how exactly we go about restricting them [the feeding programs], but I do think there is a need that we do have limits on it," she said.

The last time the City attempted to regulate feeding programs in the parks, the ordinance was thrown out by a federal judge who ruled it violated the First Amendment.

"The City never went back, as far I understand it, and took a second look and asked itself whether or not there was an alternative ordinance that could be enacted," said Bloom. "And I think it's time to do that."

In addition to finding ways of limiting the programs, the Council will be focusing on the possibilities of integrating them into the "continuum of care" provided by the City's social service system.

"It's not about turning our back on people in need, but we have to do it within a framework and that framework has limited resources… that continuum of care can only handle a finite number of people, and things are getting out of kilter again," O'Connor said.

Bloom agreed, citing the almost decade-old feeding program at Palisades Park, which he said is "counterproductive to the continuum of care." He added, "And I don't think that's changed since that time," referring to failed efforts in the past by the City to connect the program to social services.

O'Connor said regulating help should not be interpreted as being against helping the homeless.

"There's all kinds of different ways of helping people out," said O'Connor. "It's not about helping people. It's about how people are helping people."
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