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As homelessness grows, even havens toughen up

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 21, 2002


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.

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"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.

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.