August 2008 – Two Views on Homelessness and Criminalization: Homeless No More

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By Janet C. Phelan

It is a rainy day in Santa Monica.  About dozen homeless people have gathered under the overhang at the Ocean Park Community Access Center on Olympic Boulevard, which is the hub for homeless services in Santa Monica. While the rain pours down, the homeless huddle, share cigarettes and joke wryly about available “shelter.”

Santa Monica developed a reputation as a “homeless friendly” community back in the eighties, when the city of Santa Monica opened its doors to the poorest of the poor, setting up an extensive network of homeless services and even sanctioning a “tent city” on the lawn of city hall.  Drawn by this reputation as well as by the warm weather, the homeless began to stream in to Santa Monica.  Along the way, the politics of this beautiful, wealthy city by the sea changed, but the reputation remained. 

The current leadership of the city of Santa Monica is, in fact, engaged in legal warfare against this population. Under the tutelage of the misnamed “Homeless Liaison Office,” the city has drafted and passed legislation criminalizing behavior that simply bespeaks poverty. A major proponent of these new laws is Councilman Bobby Shriver, brother to Maria Shriver, who is the wife of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was Shriver whom I first heard drop the phrase, “quality of life crimes.”

For example, it is now illegal (and punishable by six months jail time) to engage in any of the following behaviors: Washing your hair in a public restroom; Sleeping on the beach or in parks during the day; Sleeping in a car; Shaving in a public restroom; “Aggressive” panhandling. The definition for “aggressive” involves all verbalizations requesting assistance. Signs are still legal. 

In addition, the City has passed laws that placed a “chilling” effect on those wishing to assist the homeless, by feeding them. The 9th circuit court of appeals upheld laws in Santa Monica which prohibited public feedings, unless a permit were acquired. The terms of the permit, which were required for events accommodating more than 150 people, placed a minimum $500 clean-up fee, payable to the City, as well as a more modest permit fee simply to pass out food to hungry people.

Paul Grymkowski, a former owner of the chain Gold’s gym and a deacon in a local church, had been passing out food two days a week in Palisades Park for a number of years. He was providing high quality, vegetable-intensive meals, which were enormously popular among the homeless. Upon passage of the anti-feeding law, he changed his format and began to display signs reading “The Grymkowski Family and Friends Picnic.” He reasoned that he could not be arrested and jailed for holding picnics. 

The police began to show up at Grymkowski’s events, and shortly thereafter, he discontinued serving meals in the park. The Status Report from The City of Santa Monica reveals that the number of public feedings dropped from 26 down to only five, since the adoption of the permit laws in 2002. The status report also includes the rationale for the permit laws: “The feedings often attract large crowds. As most of the persons receiving food are, or appear to be homeless, they usually have significant amounts of personal property with them…wear and tear on park property is substantial. Perhaps most importantly, the scheduled public feedings tend to facilitate homeless people staying in the streets.”

Well, I guess if they don’t eat, they won’t be living on the streets (or anywhere else) very long…

Several years ago, Grymkowski expressed concern that he would soon be jailed for his large heart. At this point, he has moved his picnics out of the park to the “legal” interior of the OPCC Access Center.

Homelessness is increasing in Santa Monica. The ravages of the economy and the termination of the Section 8 housing program in Los Angeles have all contributed to the swelling of the numbers of the poorest of the poor. The service visits at OPCC support this perception. The number of people served at OPCC’s Access Center for FY 2004-2005 was 2,095. By FY 2006-7, the number had jumped to over 2,700. 

Interestingly enough, the official Homeless Census, sponsored by Los Angeles Homeless Services Association, tells a different story. The census reports that the numbers of homeless in Santa Monica dropped 25 percent between 2005 and 2007, from 1991 to 1506. This was dutifully reported in the Santa Monica Daily Press, which quoted city officials as stating that the results of the homeless count demonstrate that the efforts of the city to help the homeless are working. 

John Maceri, the Executive Director of OPCC, did not return calls from TAB inquiring as to the discrepancy between his agency’s figures and what was reported in the press.

The City of Santa Monica has launched an aggressive program to address the “homeless problem.” The shelter programs in Los Angeles County, of which Santa Monica is a part, currently offer a maximum of about 12,000 beds, for a population of over 73,000. This figure includes the “winter shelter” beds, when the National Guard Armories open their doors between the months of November and March and transitional housing beds. For Santa Monica, “homeless capital of the United States,” the emergency and transitional shelter beds total 261. This figure increases by 464 if one adds in the transitional housing beds, which can be occupied for up to two years. Julie Rusk, director of Santa Monica City Hall’s homeless effort, seized upon the so-called “drop” in homelessness in Santa Monica and proclaimed, “We are going in the right direction.”

Rusk did not return calls from TAB requesting an explanation for the apparent drop in the homeless census at the same time that the service numbers for OPCC were on the rise. Stacy Rowe, Human Services Administrator, did agree to speak with this reporter. She suggested that the reasons that the figures for OPCC were on the rise was due to the “excellent” job of outreach that agency was doing.

However, the word on the streets is that the numbers of homeless in Santa Monica is exploding. “We’ve got people flooding in here like nobody’s business,” said “Dave,” who was parking his bike in front of OPCC. 

Under the banner of addressing the “homeless problem,” Santa Monica has recently set up a “Homeless Court.” The questionable constitutionality of bifurcating the legal system and setting up a court for only those in particular economic stratum does not seem to bother city hall. Homeless court convenes once a month, to hear cases involving “quality of life” and other petty cases against homeless individuals. The city’s website hails this as “an innovative pilot project.” Spearheaded by Santa Monica Homeless “Czar” Ed Edelman, the court will offer drug and psychiatric assistance, rather than jail time, to those arrested for “petty offenses.” 

In “Ending Homelessness in Santa Monica,” authored by the Urban Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., a “big stick” approach is advocated, using the threat of increased incarceration as the prod. “As things stand now,” states the report, “the only ‘or else’ that the court will have, as it urges homeless people to ‘cooperate, or else,’ is a relatively short stay in jail. We believe it will need a stronger ‘or else’ to make a real dent; changing the jail could supply that strength.”

This brings us to the spectre of Army Regulation 210-35. Drafted into law in 1997 and revised in 2005, 210-35 calls for the setting up of “civilian inmate labor camps” on military bases. There has been much buzz, mostly on the internet, concerning closed military bases being reconfigured as “concentration camps.” The fact is that 210-35 reveals who the denizens of these forced labor camps will be. Section 3-5 (a)(6) states that the camps should be set up in compliance with the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act. This was enacted under the administration of Ronald Reagan, in 1987.

The Army Regulation goes on to mitigate any sort of press coverage of activities or inmates, and chillingly states that if inmate deaths occur, the host agency will not be held responsible.

In an interview last fall with Danielle Noble of the Homeless Liaison office in Santa Monica, Noble explicitly denied any knowledge of 210-35. “We have enough trouble getting the homeless into regular housing,” she said. “Why would we put them in concentration camps?”

I guess I have some questions, too. Why would someone be arrested for shaving in a public restroom? Why would the City of Santa Monica put forward $476, 237 (estimated costs for one year pilot Homeless Court ), which admittedly served only eighty-two people in a one year span of time, when it would cost less to simply house these individuals? 

Why is the legal system being altered to criminalize poverty? Why does the Urban Institute advocate “changing the jail” to “make a dent” on homelessness? Why in the world does the Army now have in place plans to place homeless people in forced labor camps?

The poor are always with us, or so stated the Bible. Maybe the U.S. Government has made different plans.

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