Crackdown on Homeless Debated by Ojai, CA City Council FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Wed, 4 Feb 1998 11:38:28 -0800 (PST)


FWD  January 26, 1998  By Richard Warchol, Special to The LA Times

OJAI DEBATES CRACKDOWN ON VAGRANCY LAWS:
The City Council will consider enacting ordinances to stem increasing
complaints about panhandling downtown and drinking in parks.

                    
OJAI--Officials in this peaceful, bucolic hideaway are debating how best to
quell a big-city problem usually left down the hill. At least twice a day,
someone calls police complaining about panhandlers on downtown street
corners. Or transients using walls, trail sides or ball fields as toilets.
Or hanging out at picnic tables and drinking in Sarzotti and Libbey parks,
frightening the general public.

And so, members of the City Council on Tuesday will consider laying down
some laws. City Manager Andrew S. Belknap suggests that the council
consider drafting ordinances that would prohibit panhandling in certain
public places and outlaw alcohol consumption in city parks without a
permit.

City officials say the problems involve just a handful of people and aren't
yet too serious. The problems usually go away when winter shelters for the
homeless in the city close.  But Belknap tells the City Council in a report
he will present Tuesday that without laws to ban panhandling or alcohol at
Sarzotti Park, the city is at a disadvantage in responding to the growing
complaints.

"We're not in the business of harassing people that are down on their
luck," Ventura County Sheriff's Sgt. Mike Johnson said. "But their problems
become our problems when they infringe on other people."

There wasn't a panhandler in sight in downtown Ojai late Friday morning and
into the early afternoon--just a slew of tourists in town for a popular
quilt show, milling about in downtown stores and restaurants.

But don't be deceived, say some merchants, who would welcome an
anti-panhandling law like ones on the books in Ventura, Thousand Oaks and
elsewhere. There are just a handful of people panhandling, but it's been
happening often enough to bother shoppers, tourists and merchants, they
say.

"We're all aggravated by it," said Stan Katz, who owns the Human Arts
galleries in the heart of downtown. "It's just a few people, but they're
here a lot."

JoAnn Sedwick, an employee who was running the bar at the Hub, said
problems with panhandlers are new to the city, and are intensifying. Some
panhandlers have been brazen enough to knock on drivers' windows, begging
for spare change, she said.
                                                             * * *
"We never, never were really bothered with panhandlers," Sedwick said as
she poured a patron a drink. "I've noticed them lately. "We get a lot of
tourists up here, especially on weekends," she said. "I don't want to be
hassled if I'm someplace. I don't like it, and I don't want to subject
other people to it."

Police officials say panhandling and public drunkenness among homeless
people have been on the rise for the past three years, since authorities
first cleared the Ventura River bottom of squatters. Problems have
intensified this winter, Johnson said, after the county and officials down
the hill in Ventura and in Oxnard booted people from their encampments in
the Ventura and Santa Clara river bottoms.

Ojai officials believe that, rather than enroll in an intensive shelter and
social services program at the former Camarillo State Hospital, some
homeless people are opting for a comfortable system of low-key shelters and
soup kitchens that rotate nightly among seven Ojai churches.
                                                             * * *
"While the new county shelter at the former Camarillo State Hospital is an
excellent facility, which is being well used by women, children and
families, it is apparently not attractive to some elements of the homeless
population, especially transient males with an alcohol dependency," Belknap
writes in the report to the City Council.

Belknap, who was away at a conference and unavailable to be interviewed,
describes the city as a "friendly, caring place that probably makes for
more successful panhandling." It all adds up to more begging, more litter
and more drunk transients hassling residents and scaring tourists, Belknap
writes.

Hence the proposal.

But Rick Raine, shelter administrator for the Ojai Valley Family Shelter
program, said he can name the 12 or so homeless men and women causing all
the ruckus. Unlike others, he insists that the people causing the problems
are not transplants from downhill, but locals.

Still, Raine said, he has asked nonprofit shelter providers in Ventura and
Oxnard to stop referring clients to the Ojai shelter program. And when he
sees people who stay in the shelter program out on the streets begging, he
tells them to stop.

Meanwhile, people approached by panhandlers should keep their money, he said.

Some beggars use the money for bus tokens or to buy lunch, which is not
provided at the shelters, but most will spend it on alcohol, he said. "If
people want to help, that's absolutely great," Raine said. "I encourage
them to do so. Buy them a sandwich. Buy them a Coke. But don't encourage
them to stumble."
                                                             * * *
Others, however, are convinced that most of the people they see panhandling
downtown are new faces, not the same handful of local homeless people that
most longtime Ojai residents know by name.

"We didn't have [panhandling] until they started clearing out the Ventura
River bottom," said David Mason, owner of the Village Florist. "It seems
like that's when it started, so I just assume they left the river bottom
and came up here."

The problem may involve just a few people, but Mason said the proposed law
on panhandling is a good idea. "I think [panhandling] gives the town a bad
name. People and tourists can't be comfortable walking down the street and
having dirty and quite smelly people coming up to them all the time," he
said.

City Councilwoman Nina Shelley said she doesn't believe that panhandling
has become a big problem in the city, but that it is certainly bothersome,
especially to shopkeepers who depend on tourist traffic for their
livelihoods.
                                                             * * *
"I think some people have the notion--and justifiably so--that people like
to come to Ojai to panhandle and take advantage of wealthy people," Shelley
said. "There's also the thought that Ojai is a tourist community, and
panhandling is a bad thing for a tourist community. . . . We will do what
we have to do to restore the dignity of our community."

END FORWARD
   













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