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Brushfire Heats Up 415 PCH Neighbors

By Ann K. Williams
Staff Writer

September 11 – A transient’s cooking fire that torched palm trees in Palisades Park a week ago has rekindled the concerns of neighbors who are trying to block the City's plans to convert the former Marion Davies estate into a public beach facility.

The September 2 fire -- which comes less than a year after a transient ignited a similar blaze at the same spot -- was limited to approximately a half-acre on the bluff overlooking the 400 block of Pacific Coast Highway (PCH).

The site parched by the recent fire overlooks the former estate the City hopes to turn into a public beach club. (Photo by Ann K. Williams)

It took Santa Monica and Los Angeles firefighters about an hour to put out the fire, which did not threaten structures or cause injuries, according to Fire Department officials.

“The vegetation grows very thick here and it’s tinder-dry at certain times of the year,” Captain Dale Hallock told CBS-2 News as his crew battled the evening blaze. “We have all the signs of an encampment and cooking that were going on at the point where it started.”

The fire rekindled the following morning and was extinguished by a fire crew. But it once again sparked neighboring residents’ complaints that the transients camping illegally on the bluffs threaten their safety and are likely to overrun the beach club the City plans to build at 415 PCH if it doesn’t beef up its enforcement of anti-vagrancy laws. (see story)

“It’s truly a public safety issue,” said PCH homeowner Jonathan Ornstein,one of the plaintiffs who has brought suit against the City to block construction of the public beach club. “This is clearly an area of a high level of homelessness.”

An eyewitness to the blaze, Ornstein described the fire “creeping along” the ground until it hit the palm trees, which seemed to spontaneously combust in an upward rush of flame.

“I’m not anti-anybody,” said Ornstein, who has been accused, along with his fellow plaintiffs, of wanting to keep people off his beachfront turf. “I just don’t want the front of my house burning down with my kids in it.

“You have people in the City say, ‘I tell my kids homeless people are just like moms pushing their strollers,’” Ornstein added. “Well, moms don’t start fires. Moms don’t defecate in public.”

Like neighbors on both sides of the vacant property, Ornstein told of watching homeless campers “empty out of the hills” when police or fire trucks approach, only to return when the coast is clear.

While Ornstein said the police have balked at arresting vagrant campers, officers of the Homeless Liaison Program (HLP, pronounced “help”) say that is exactly what they’re there to do.

Once a month, the HLP team -- recently boosted to six officers -- goes out to enforce the “bluff trespassing” law, said HLP team officer Lieutenant Venegas.

True Green, a company that does much of the landscaping for the City, joins them, clearing brush and debris to make it harder for campers to hide in the foliage.

Since the law took effect in June 2003, police have made 156 arrests for trespassing on the bluffs, according to the department.

They’re often accompanied by counselors from the Veterans Administration Hospital, St. Joseph Center, Step Up on Second and the Ocean Park Community Center (OPCC) who talk to the homeless and try to connect them with social services.

After last weekend’s fire, the clean-up crew came out Wednesday to clear away burnt debris, and True Green will be out this week cutting back vegetation on the bluff, Venegas said.

Still, police say that they’re fighting an uphill battle.

HLP officers Monique Carrillo and Robert Martinez explained the problem to The Lookout in a report in August 2005 – a few months before a campfire set the bluffs ablaze last year. (see story)

Pointing out numerous illegal encampments on the freeway embankments and on the bluffs below Palisades Park, the officers said that many of these transients have been cited or arrested multiple times but, after a few hours in jail, they return.

Camouflaged by the vegetation on the bluffs were sheets of plywood and tarps, which Carrillo called a "three room apartment" with a kitchen, bedroom and library.

"He's got it set up pretty fancy down there," Carrillo remarked.

"We've taken it down, I can't tell you how many times," Martinez said, adding that each time it takes about half a day.

After enough citations "we've been able to take him to county jail," Martinez said. "He did eight days and then he was back. He hasn't really done any time for it so, for him, it's worth it."

The City tried to put a stop to the practice in May 2003 when it passed the ordinance to keep “humans” off the hazardous bluffs. Though the word “homeless” was conspicuously absent from the language of the ordinance, the two council members who opposed it said it unfairly “rousted” transients without giving them anyplace else to go. (see story)

“To move ahead on enforcement actions is the wrong priority” when those pushed out have nowhere to go, then-council member Michael Feinstein objected.

“Have we considered where these people will move to? My concern is dealing with the day-to-day lives of people,” added council member Kevin McKeown.

McKeown has since said he “never opposed making access to the bluffs illegal.”

“I asked to give our social service agencies a week or two to find shelter for the people then living on the bluffs, so that those unhoused people wouldn’t simply move up into the adjacent neighborhood and end up sleeping in some resident’s carport,” McKeown said.

Like McKeown, Ornstein said he wants the City to put more thought into how it addresses homelessness in Santa Monica.

“We have a problem here. Let’s seriously try to address it,” Ornstein said. “Do something real. Don’t just look the other way.”

Lt. Vanegas encourages the public to call the HLP team at (310) 458-8953 to report problems involving homeless people.

Gene Williams contributed to this report.

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