Monica Almeida/The New York Times
A security guard from the
Business Improvement District keeping an eye on a food truck operated by
the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition.
Published: November 25, 2013
LOS ANGELES — They began showing up at dusk last week, wandering the
streets, slumped in wheelchairs and sitting on sidewalks, paper plates
perched on their knees. By 6:30 p.m., more than 100 homeless people had
lined up at a barren corner in Hollywood, drawn by free meals handed out
from the back of a truck every night by volunteers.
But these days, 27 years after the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition
began feeding people in a county that has one of the worst homeless
problems in the nation, the charity is under fire, a flashpoint in the
national debate over the homeless and the programs that serve them.
Facing an uproar from homeowners, two members of the Los Angeles City
Council have called for the city to follow the lead of dozens of other
communities and ban the feeding of homeless people in public spaces.
“If you give out free food on the street with no other services to deal
with the collateral damage, you get hundreds of people beginning to
squat,” said Alexander Polinsky, an actor who lives two blocks from the
bread line. “They are living in my bushes and they are living in my next
door neighbor’s crawl spaces. We have a neighborhood which now seems
like a mental ward.”
Should Los Angeles enact such an ordinance, it would join a roster of
more than 30 cities, including Philadelphia, Raleigh, N.C., Seattle and
Orlando, Fla., that have adopted or debated some form of legislation
intended to restrict the public feeding of the homeless, according to
the National Coalition of the Homeless
“Dozens of cities in recent years,” said Jerry Jones, the coalition’s
executive director. “It’s a common but misguided tactic to drive
homeless people out of downtown areas.”
“This is an attempt to make difficult problems disappear,” he said, adding, “It’s both callous and ineffective.”
The notion that Los Angeles might join this roster is striking given the
breadth of the problem here. Encampments of homeless can be found from
downtown to West Hollywood, from the streets of Brentwood to the beaches
of Venice. The situation that has stirred no small amount of
frustration and embarrassment among civic leaders, now amplified by
fears of the hungry and mostly homeless people, who have come to count
on these meals.
“They are helping human beings,” said Debra Morris, seated in a
wheelchair as she ate the evening’s offering of pasta with tomato sauce.
“I can barely pay my own rent.”
There are now about 53,800 homeless people in Los Angeles County, according to the 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report
released by the Department of Housing and Urban Development last week, a
27 percent increase over last year. Only New York had a higher homeless
The problem is particularly severe here because of the temperate climate
that makes it easier to live outdoors, cuts in federal spending on the
homeless, and a court-ordered effort by California to shrink its prison
population, said Mike Arnold, the executive director of the Los Angeles
Homeless Services Authority, an agency created by the city and county in
All told, about $82 million in government funds is spent each year on helping homeless here, Mr. Arnold said.
one of the two
City Council members who introduced the resolution (the other, also a
Democrat, was Mitch O’Farrell), said food lines should be moved indoors,
out of consideration to the homeless and neighborhoods. “There are
well-intentioned people on both sides,” Mr. LaBonge said.
But, he added: “This has overwhelmed what is a residential neighborhood.
When dinner is served, everybody comes and it’s kind of a
Ted Landreth, the founder of the food coalition, said his group had
fought back community opposition before — it moved to this corner after
being ordered out
of Plummer Park in West Hollywood in 1990 because of similar complaints — and would do so again.
“The people who want to get rid of us see dollar signs, property values, ahead of pretty much everything else,” he said.
”We have stood our ground,” he added. “We are not breaking any law.”
Communities that have sought to implement feeding restriction laws have
faced strong resistance. In Philadelphia, advocates for the homeless won
an injunction in federal court blocking a law there that would have
banned food lines in public parks. Even before the court action,
religious groups had moved in and began setting up indoor food lines.
In many ways the agonies of the national battle over dealing with
homelessness are etched into this four-block-square section of
Hollywood, where industrial buildings, including the Cemex cement
factory, film production facilities and the stately former headquarters
of Howard Hughes’s enterprises, sit two blocks up North Sycamore Avenue
away from a middle-class neighborhood of Spanish Mission homes.
Construction in the area is bustling, reflecting the gentrification that
is taking place across this city.
The coalition’s truck, a Grumman Kurbmaster, arrives every night at
6:15, drawing as many as 200 people from across the region.
The other night, men and women lined up for firsts and, if desired,
seconds. Some were quiet and grateful, and a few were loud and agitated.
“You all right?” Mr. Landreth asked one man who was shouting to
Just up the street, 75 people filled a living room, anxiously exchanging
stories about what many described as a neighborhood under siege, and
demanding help from local officials.
“You guys have had your fill here — we know that,” Officer Dave Cordova
of the Los Angeles Police Department told them. “And the food coalition
doesn’t help. Where do all these guys go after they get something to
Peter Nichols, the founder of the Melrose Action Neighborhood Watch
which helped organize the meeting, said there has been a steady
increase in complaints about petty crime, loitering, public defecation
and people sleeping on sidewalks.
“While it sounds good in concept — I’m going to pull up to a curb, I’m
going to feed people, I’m going to clean up and I’m going to leave —
well, there are not restrooms,” he said. “Can these people get a place
to sleep? To clean up? We want there to be after-care provided every day
they do the program. But they don’t and they can’t.”
What Mr. Landreth described as the most serious threat in its existence —
a powerful combination of opposition from homeowners, businesses and
city officials — is stirring deep concern among the people who come here
to eat most nights.
“I know because of the long lines, a lot of times we have trouble and
confusion,” said Emerson Tenner, 46, as he waited for a meal. “But there
are people here who really need this. A few people act a little crazy.
Don’t mess it up for everyone else.”
Aaron Lewis, who said he makes his home on the sidewalk by a 7-Eleven on
Sunset Boulevard, chalked up opposition to what he described as rising
callousness to people in need.
“That’s how it is everywhere,” Mr. Lewis said. “People here — it’s their
only way to eat. The community doesn’t help us eat.”
Matt Hamilton contributed reporting.
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