Advocates Grapple Over Best Solution for West Hollywood’s Homeless

Fri, Jan 25, 2013   By Paige Jarvie Brettingen    10 Comments
Homeless

Each evening at 6:15 p.m., Ted Landreth’s food truck pulls up to the corner of Sycamore and Romaine where a line of people has already formed. For many of them, waiting in an area whose landmarks include a parking lot for cement mixers, a film industry warehouse and a gay sex club, it’s their first and only meal of the day.

Stationed on this corner just outside of West Hollywood, Landreth and his team at the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition quickly prepare an assembly-line of the dishes they’ve brought: jambalaya, salads, a Mexican casserole, turkey sandwiches, fresh fruit and French baguettes – all donated by neighborhood restaurants, caterers and production companies that would have thrown the food away. About 50 people, whom Landreth refers to as “clients,” file through, eagerly holding out their plates. It’s a small number compared to the 200 clients Landreth is used to seeing – a number that’s doubled since the recession, he said.

Yet even that number is too many for residents several blocks south who are trying to force the coalition and those it serves, already ousted from affluent West Hollywood, to move once again.

greater west hollywood coalition

Natasha Briggs is a frequent client. After escaping an abusive marriage and then having her job as a bus-tour guide replaced by an audio recording, Briggs moves from couch to couch, staying with old neighbors and friends. The 59-year-old graciously accepts the extra sandwiches given to her by the food coalition and tucks a few free socks and a new pair of pants under her arm.

“I’ve been going crazy wondering if I’ll ever be back to normal,” she said. “I hate being in this situation.”

“A lot of the people are ones who never expected to have to get free food because they were fully employed somewhere … They come to us thinking it’s just going to be temporary,” said Landreth, a former documentary producer with CBS. He and his wife Penny, an art teacher, have worked with the coalition since it began in 1987, serving hot meals on the street corner seven days a week. “There’s a progression towards homelessness …  Many people who come to us have a place to live but can’t afford to pay rent and food.”

Though the food coalition was originally an idea proposed by the city of West Hollywood in 1985, the city caved to residents’ complaints and evicted the coalition in 1989. At its present location of Sycamore and Romaine it faced a lot of initial criticism, which slowly abated. Now, however, that criticism has heightened.

“I don’t think anyone has an issue with the feeding program itself. It’s when it becomes problematic for the rest of the community,” said Scott Campbell, president of the Central Hollywood Neighborhood Council that represents residents near the Sycamore and Romaine area.

The problems don’t necessarily occur while the food coalition is in the area, Campbell said. “Before and after the food is handed out, the people who take advantage of the services slowly move through the neighborhood. There have been many instances of trash and disruptive behavior, including people having sex in people’s front yards.”

Some of the food coalition’s clients, including Briggs, empathize with the residents.

“I understand how they feel,” said Briggs. “But it’s always a small group of people who have to ruin it for everyone else. They’ve been threatening to shut (the food line) down, which would be sad because it’s the best one in town.”

Campbell said that the neighborhood isn’t against helping the homeless, but it has a different viewpoint on how the issue should be handled; namely, to focus on housing over food lines. To help with those efforts, the Central Hollywood Neighborhood Council has donated $5,000 in the past (10 percent of its budget) to People Assisting The Homeless (PATH), an organization that provides housing and other support services for homeless people in the West Hollywood area.

homeless coalition

Another neighborhood group, Melrose Village, has also voiced complaints about the coalition. In October, the group posted an open letter to Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz on its blog. In the letter, the Melrose Village Blog editors used PATH to support their argument:

“An outreach worker for People Assisting the Homeless (PATH) told us that most of the homeless individuals in this area are drug addicts, alcoholics, or mentally ill (or a combination of those), and that 85% of the homeless in this area refuse help, saying they prefer to be on the streets. The food line helps them to stay on the streets. That’s why PATH says that stand-alone food lines are not a good idea.”

While PATH typically focuses on housing and does encounter clients who refuse help, it says it’s not against food lines like the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition so long as the programs provide connections to other services and are respectful of the neighbors.

“Folks who provide food and clothing and emergency shelter fulfill a very important need in the community,” said PATH’s chief development and communications officer Jeremy Sidell. “I wouldn’t say anything negative about that because no one else is doing it. While we may have a different approach, in which we identify long-term housing solutions, we’re not fulfilling that need (of emergency services). It’s good that others are.”

Landreth said he and the coalition workers go through the neighborhood on a regular basis to make sure it is clean and have tried to address the concerns they receive, many of which come through anonymous messages or complaints to the police.

“We’re willing to meet with anybody or talk to anybody who can suggest a better way to do what we do. When we respond to the message and say, ‘What do they mean specifically?’ We usually don’t hear back again … We may not be doing a perfect job as far as the community is concerned, but nobody is doing what we’re doing at all,” Landreth said.

West Hollywood Food Coalition

“We’re hoping that someone comes along and says, ‘This is the perfect building and it’s free. The community supports you doing what you’re doing in this building,’ but over the course of a lot of years, people have said that to us but have always put the burden on us (to find a new place).”

Editors of the Melrose Village blog declined to be interviewed but did say they have not yet received a response from councilmember Koretz. His office has told them “they will receive a response at some point.” Koretz’s office as well as LA councilmember Tom LaBonge’s office, whose district now includes Sycamore and Romaine, did not respond to interview requests.

The Melrose Village blog says there have been crimes linked to homeless people in the Sycamore and Romaine area. In particular, a homeless man was arrested in May 2012 for a 2009 stabbing of a resident on the 6400 block of Romaine Street, three-quarters of a mile east of the coalition’s feeding site.

In Sgt. Jon Klaus’s 19 years of experience with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in West Hollywood, his biggest concerns regarding crime don’t include homeless individuals.

“There aren’t a whole lot of them breaking rules. There are sometimes transients sleeping where they shouldn’t sleep, but we tell the residents being homeless isn’t a crime. As long as they’re not breaking any rules, we allow them to go where they please,” he said. “We try to do a lot for both homeless and citizens. The quality of life is what (residents) are worried about with homeless not practicing hygiene.”

PATH is one of few service providers in the West Hollywood area, which presents another challenge. According to Sidell, PATH is always at capacity, helping about 4,000 people each year at its multi-service center. Landreth also said he’s seen an increase in clients. However, the number of homeless people in the city of Los Angeles decreased by 9 percent from 25,771 in 2009 to 23,539 in 2011­, according to the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count’s most recent report in 2011. The next Homeless Count for 2013 will come out at the end of January.

Whether the approach is providing housing or providing food, a major problem is helping homeless people who don’t want to be helped.

“Our strategy is to go back and continue to engage them. Often times it takes weeks, months, even years. It’s different for each client,” said Sidell.

Jackie Wagner is a frequent client of the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition but refuses to try a housing program. The 56-year-old Palos Verdes native has been homeless for the past 16 years. Battling depression and drug use, she is proud to say she is sober. After “saving up her loose change,” she now lives in a van she bought.

“Some people, they all put us in the same boat, which I used to do too,” she said. “But we’re not all druggies … There are just certain things you don’t get out of. You’re not living the same lifestyle, you don’t talk to the same people you used to. I lost my network. I’m over 50, and I look like a hillbilly so it’s hard (to get work).”

Wagner prefers the food coalition’s help over the housing approach. She was turned off after hearing a rumor that the housing options require “going through meetings and that they can barge into your room whenever they want.”

The Landreths, working with West Hollywood, the Los Angeles County Housing Authority and the Shelter Plus Care program, themselves have found permanent housing for 16 of their clients over the past 18 months — many in West Hollywood.

“(After finding them housing), we’re then in constant touch with them,” Landreth said. “We provide continuing care and supervision so to be sure that they have access to health care, so that they can build and maintain a normal life, which is what everybody deserves to have. It’s been spectacular from our point of view.”

But that option is becoming less certain. Those whom have found permanent housing typically qualify for federal disability aid as well as subsidized rent through the Shelter Plus Care Program. The federal government and Housing Authority of Los Angeles granted a limited number of certificates for this subsidized housing program to the city of West Hollywood, which distributed them to homeless organizations. The coalition, as well as PATH, were able to select clients whom they felt best qualified for the program.

As the coalition’s last certificate is now gone, Landreth hopes the federal government will issue another round. “It’s the most effective, most transparent way of getting people off the street into decent housing, which they’re likely to maintain,” he said. “We don’t end up putting someone in an apartment who isn’t likely to stay there.”

As the Landreths embark on their 26th year with the food coalition, Ted said their experiences have reaffirmed their belief that there’s no “science” to solving homelessness. In fact, in his opinion, there will never be just one solution.

“The notion that you can collectivize the problem in any way is nonsense …  if we call them the homeless as one group of people then we can forget it,” he said. “We’re interested in helping individual people, not a group, not statistics. We’re helping people as we come to know them. What better way to get to know them by giving them food?”

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About Paige Jarvie Brettingen

Paige Jarvie Brettingen is a Chicago native who loves L.A. (but will always be a Cubs fan). She received her bachelor's from Northwestern University and is currently finishing up her master's degree in journalism at USC Annenberg.

View all posts by Paige Jarvie Brettingen →

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10 Comments

  1. AnonymousFri, Jan 25, 2013 at 8:59 am

    When we started a movement to incorporate West Hollywood in 1984, we all said we must address the homeless problem. The hustlers on SMB would be counseled and helped. The hungry would be fed and the cold would be warmed. Have things changed that much since the city shed its image as a railroad hub to an affluent community?

  2. Neighborhood residentFri, Jan 25, 2013 at 3:41 pm

    If you follow the link to the open letter on the Melrose Village Blog, you find out that Landreth refuses to run this program in the neighborhood where he lives, South Carthay. He insists on running it in the La Brea/Santa Monica Boulevard area, and forcing other people to live with any problems it creates. So who exactly is the NIMBY here?

  3. business in areaSun, Jan 27, 2013 at 1:46 pm

    This location is NOT is West Hollywood, but acrosa the street in Los Angeles proper.

    The Homeless who congregate outside the Premises are urinating, defecating and vomiting on PFC property on a daily basis, which is unsanitary and detrimental to the health of PFC’s employees. PFC employees have occasionally stepped in the feces and vomit, exposing them to disease. PFC employees have also occasionally stepped on used hypodermic needles, risking infection. PFC employees have also slipped and fallen as a result of stepping in the vomit. PFC is in danger of losing key employees as a result. To alleviate these dangerous and unsanitary conditions, PFC employees have no choice other than to clean up the mess left daily by the Homeless. In addition, in 2010 one particular vagrant was living and “showering” in the Premises’ garden, using a hose belonging to PFC. PFC had to remove the hose and install a special lock on the faucet in order to stop this behavior. This same vagrant threatened to kill PFC’s manager. The time spent by PFC employees cleaning up after the homeless is diverting those employees from providing their regular services, causing injury to PFC
    PFCs tenants and employees are afraid to go to their cars after work because the area they must walk by is full of vagrants waiting for the food truck that time of day. Many 1of the vagrants are mentally unstable or on drugs, endangering the health and safety PFC’s employees, customers and tenants. The Homeless threaten PFC employees with physical violence and have been violent with each other on the Premises. There have been numerous incidents in which employees and tenants of PFC were in physical danger as a result of the Homeless, including, but not limited to:On October 30, 2010, a PFC representative was attacked by a homeless woman outside the Premises. The woman began screaming and pounding her fists on a car parked along the street. She then pounded her fists on the widows of a vehicle driven by the PFC representative, nearly breaking her window while the representative was inside her vehicle. The police were called as a result of this incident, but the woman was gone by the time they arrived. This is just one instance of harassment by the Homeless. The same PFC representative has been attacked on other occasions, and received death threats from the Homeless on multiple occasions. The Homeless have also harassed Plaintiffs’ other employees, customers and tenants. On January 12, 2011, a PFC employee exited the building and was confronted by homeless woman with a dog. The woman taunted the dog to attack the PFC employee saying “get him, get him, sick him, sick him.”On January 17, 2011, a PFC tenant was unable to enter the Premises through his designated entrance because five homeless people were fighting in the alcove in which the entrance is located. The police were called and attempted to arrested one of the homeless men, but could not locate the others.On March 24, 2011, while the food truck was at the Premises, several homeless people were fighting outside of the building when one Homeless person took a blunt object and broke a window on the Premises in a unit that is rented by a tenant. The police were called and a vandalism report was filed. On March 24, 2011, after the incident explained above, another fight broke out among several Homeless people, one of whom was yelling “bring out your weapon.” A person working for West Hollywood Food approached the people and, rather than ask them to stop, asked them to move the fight to a location farther away from the truck. The fight was eventually broken up by the same police.For the safety and well being of its employees, clients, tenants and visitors, PFC has requested that West Hollywood Food move its truck to a different location, but West Hollywood Food has refused. West Hollywood Food has also falsely stated that business owners and residents in the area are in favor of it continuing to operate the food truck in the area. In fact, the owners and residents of the surrounding area are adversely affected by the food truck and support having it moved to another location.West Hollywood Food contends that it may continue to create a nuisance in the neighborhood because it has a permit to operate its food truck from that location, but West Hollywood Food has failed to produce the permit to Plaintiffs. Plaintiffs are informed and believe, and based thereon allege, that the permit is a food permit, which allows it to serve food, but does not specifically state that West Hollywood Food may operate its truck from that particular location.

  4. Mark HeinemannSun, Jan 27, 2013 at 3:52 pm

    My wife and I have worked with the homeless for decades. The City Council is now far more interested in helping developers make a fast buck then to help the homeless.
    Regardless of what many believe, most of those that hang around WeHo are gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans-gender. When they came out of the closet, their families relieved them of a home.

    The West Hollywood City Council relieved them of their freedom and dignity!

    Mark Heinemann

  5. Jimmy PalmieriMon, Jan 28, 2013 at 9:01 am

    WOW BUSINESS IN AREA—–It sounds to me as though you need a HAZMAT suit to swim through the rivers of vomit, and trudge through the mountains of feces. Clearly none of this could be from pets, it will of course be from the homeless. I have an idea. Why don;t you try to go without food or housing for a week, and see how it feels. Not everyone that is in a bad situation is creating that river of vomit and cavern of crap that you write about. I say crap, as I also use that adjective to describe your story.

  6. business in areaMon, Jan 28, 2013 at 10:07 am

    Wow Jimmy, Perhaps moving your place of employment next to this food truck will shed light on the situation more clearly for you.

  7. Jimmy PalmieriMon, Jan 28, 2013 at 10:25 am

    I know business, let’s let our down and out friends starve and freeze. Let’s make believe if we don’t see them , they don’t exist. Let;s kick them harder while they are already struggling. All while we go to our work, and know we will have lunch and people will not pretend we are invisible.

  8. business in areaMon, Jan 28, 2013 at 12:32 pm

    Hard to make believe we don’t see them when they are accosting and threatening employees and patrons. Have you thought about ordering a tourniquet for your bleeding heart?

  9. Jimmy PalmieriMon, Jan 28, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    No but I have a heater, to defrost yours.

  10. sandyWed, Sep 25, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    I find this article interesting in that it states that the City of West Hollywood ousted them, but for some reason the writer expects the residential and business community to tolerate the negative repercussions. Bring it back to WeHo!. There are a lot more than 50 people on the line. Be humane, give the “clients” a place to wash their hands, use the restroom….maybe even sit down to eat rather than on a dirty sidewalk. The program needs to be housed and provide other essential programs. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is not helping those who truly need it.

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