As homelessness grows, even havens toughen up

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

At precisely 11:55 p.m., Bernardo Discensio pops his pup tent out of a backpack, places it on the curb beneath a streetlight, and crawls inside.

"I'm in bed by midnight and up by 5 a.m. when the street sweepers become my alarm clock," says Mr. Discensio, a former aerospace worker now unemployed. Up and down the Third Street Promenade - a premier tourist area of shops, movie houses, and upscale restaurants - doorways and benches are filling with homeless people huddled under blankets.

Asked why they migrate to this eight-square-mile seaside hamlet, they offer variations on a theme: It's safer than LA's skid row and social services are better. Here, a population of 88,000 spends $20 per resident on homeless programs each year, compared to 13 cents in sprawling Los Angeles.

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But across the US, even cities like Santa Monica, long known for strong social consciousness, are trimming their largess - and often getting more aggressive in cracking down on homelessness.

• In Pontiac, Mich., an emergency shelter was raided by police, and 32 people were arrested for outstanding misdemeanor warrants. Eight days later, there were surprise building inspections. All this came before a redevelopment of the area.

• In Palm Beach County, Fla., the sheriff's office created a database of homeless people, supposedly to identify deceased and missing; critics suggest it doubles as a catalog of "suspects."

• Even in liberal San Francisco, activists say officials often confiscate and destroy homeless people's property, despite state law requiring storage for 60 days.

Behind the backlash is a rise in homelessness - the biggest spike in a decade - and tighter budgets that have forced states to trim social programs.

In Santa Monica, "We were finally at wits' end that we were actually drawing too many people for our own social-service capacity," says Kathleen Rawson, executive director of Bayside District Corporation, a group that helps manage Santa Monica. "Property owners and residents and even maintenance crews were all coming forward to say they can't take it anymore."

Santa Monica: two new laws

On election Tuesday, Santa Monica made national waves in the social-service community by passing two controversial laws that local leaders hope will help alleviate the homeless "problem."

One law, passed unanimously, makes it illegal to occupy downtown doorways between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. if business owners post a sign to that effect.

The other, more controversial law limits outdoor meals by requiring groups that serve 150 or more people to adhere strictly to community-event laws and county health standards. It's an attempt to curtail the activity of outside social-service groups - now 28 by one count - coming to Santa Monica to hand out free meals. Opponents said the handouts were attracting the homeless from all over Los Angeles - and subverting their long-term need to seek help from social services.

"We had to rethink our policies big-time because we were becoming the central focus point for the homeless for all of Los Angeles," says Councilman Ken Genser.

The story is unique in its specifics but common in its intent - "symptomatic of the national trend," says Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness (NLCHP) and Poverty. "Communities across America are responding to the frustration of their citizens by passing laws to make it a crime to sleep or sit in public spaces."

An unmet rising need

In a sample of 49 cities, the NLCHP has tracked a 22.4 percent increase over the last three years in prohibitions on public "loitering or loafing." It also found a 16.3 percent increase in prohibitions on obstruction of sidewalks and public places, a 14.3 percent increase in laws against public sleeping, and a 10.2 percent rise in begging prohibitions.

"Citizens are frustrated that they have come forward with shelters and soup kitchens ... and yet the number of people on the street is growing," says Nan Roman, executive director of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Surveys show 3 million people will be homeless for some part of the year. Another 7.9 million have "worst case" housing needs, with over half their incomes going to housing. And according to the NLCHP's most recent survey, no US city has sufficient shelter for its homeless.

What makes the current crackdowns ironic - and different from the past, say Ms. Foscarinis and others - is that communities are pinpointing groups that try to help the homeless. Orlando, Fla., for instance, is considering a law to limit charity groups' feeding of the hungry in a downtown park to four times a year.

Here in Santa Monica, authorities say they're trying to limit the involvement of social service groups from Culver City on the south to Malibu on the north. "These people are well meaning, but when you suggest to them that they are encouraging a part of the population we are trying to not encourage, they say we are interfering with their personal mission," says Mr. Genser.

And authorities are attacking the issue in new ways. In Minneapolis, for instance, it's a crime to create an odor. And though state laws preempt Santa Monica on trespassing legislation, the city has made public defecation a health issue. Mayor Michael Feinstein, who voted against the current measures, calls them "a dishonest application of current health laws."

Such debate fuels the already contentious discussions that have gone on for years. One side holds that removing the homeless from public view does nothing to alleviate underlying social problems - from unemployment, to lack of job training and education, to substance abuse and housing shortages. The other side says handouts do nothing to link homeless people to social networks they need. But both sides call for intense consciousness-raising on the issue.

'We are not against helping'

"People are erroneously calling this ... 'compassion fatigue,' " says Rawson. "We are not against helping these people. Far from it. We just think people need to stand back ... and write their checks to full-service agencies and to volunteer. Those are the ways to get these people off the streets."

Foscarinis agrees. But in the meantime, she says, that doesn't justify inhumane laws that penalize those who are trying to help.

In some cities, like Fort Lauderdale, Fla., police and homeless advocates are working to refer people to public services rather than arrest them. A new center was created to increase the availability of services, and police are trained to better understand homelessness. Philadelphia drew censure from homeless advocates in 1998, when its controversial Sidewalk Behavior Ordinance criminalized some activities of homeless people. But in 1999, the city allocated an additional $5.6 million for shelter and outreach, along with policies to improve police interactions.

Foscarinis and others are also encouraged that Congress approved a new law protecting homeless children's rights last year. In October, the Social Security Administration proposed removing barriers to benefits for disabled homeless. There's also been progress on making sure homeless people can get food stamps even without a fixed address.

In the middle of it are the homeless themselves, who say they feel pushed aside by laws limiting their access to public places. "These new laws are both immoral and inhumane," says Viper Meade, who's spent much of her life homeless. "They are just saying if you have housing it's OK to eat and sleep in public, but if not, you better scram because you are less than human."

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