It's a sad irony: Santa Monica, California, which has long been one of the nation's most compassionate cities, has passed an ordinance that restricts feeding programs for the hungry.
For the homeless, Santa Monica has long been a sweet spot. Life without a roof may be mean, but in this beachside community at least you can rest your head in grass-lined parks with ocean views while taking advantage of an elaborate social services network. While other cities in the Los Angeles area spend pocket change on the homeless, Santa Monica annually spends nearly $20 per capita. Moreover, independent charity groups from nearby cities that don't have homeless problems come to Santa Monica to dole out free daily meals. The result is that the homeless population of 1,000-plus is growing faster than ever, as vagrants flood from all over the region to the closest thing to Club Med that abject poverty can offer.
And so we find that, even in Santa Monica, there are limits to compassion. "The homeless have made the city and its residents miserable," according to one man who appealed to the city council during a heated fall 2002 meeting. The council heard from angry shop clerks who were tired of cleaning up human excrement in their doorways, from residents who were afraid to go outside at night, from shoppers who resented the aggressive panhandling.
Though many stalwart defenders of the homeless also spoke at the meeting, the council ultimately passed two ordinances that appear intended to clear transients out. One bans camping in commercial doorways downtown, although business owners can exempt their properties. The second strictly regulates the dozens of independent free meal programs operating in area parks.
"One thing I'm sure of," said Council Member Robert Holbrook, who voted for both ordinances, "is that Santa Monica cannot solve the problem of national American homelessness."