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Category: Homeless/Social Services

Big snake discovered among belongings at homeless storage center

 A large snake found in storage bins used by the homeless to store their belongings in downtown L.A. Credit: Estela LopezAnimal Services workers were heading to a downtown Los Angeles storage space used by the homeless after a large snake -- thought to be a python or Boa constrictor -- was discovered Friday among the belongings, officials said.

A staff member discovered the snake while sorting through the items of a woman who hadn't been at the storage space in a week, said Estela Lopez, executive director of the Central City East Assn., a business improvement district that runs the facility.

The staff member opened a box and "there was this thing in it," Lopez said.

Those using the spaces are required to renew every seven days, Lopez said. If they don't, staff members move their belongings to another area of the facility.

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Man crushed by BART elevator in San Francisco

BART train
Authorities continued Monday to investigate the death of a man who appeared to have been crushed by an elevator at a BART station in San Francisco.

The victim, described as an adult male, was found Sunday at the Montgomery Street Station after authorities responded to a passenger stuck in a stalled elevator about 9:35 p.m., said Alicia Trost, a spokeswoman for Bay Area Rapid Transit.

His body was between the elevator and the shaft wall, and he was pronounced dead at the scene. The passenger reported that the elevator became stuck just after he heard a male voice cry out in pain.

It was possible, Trost said, that the man had been homeless. He had no identification on him, and personal belongings, including what looked like bedding, were found in the shaft.

Transit police are trying to determine how the man gained access to the shaft.

“There’s two points of entry into the area,” Trost said. “There’s the ventilation system, but we checked all points of entry and they’re secure. Really the only way to get in is through the elevator emergency hatch, which you would need a boost to get in there.”

Trost said that although BART stations attract the homeless, no one is allowed to spend the night and police do a sweep every night to ensure there are no trespassers. She said that BART employees have no recollection of a similar incident ever occurring.

“It’s highly unusual and upsetting,” she said.

State Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials have inspected the elevator and will return before it is put back in service, which is expected to be next week.

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-- Corina Knoll

Photo: A BART train against the San Francisco skyline. Credit: Eric Risberg / Associated Press.

L.A. asks U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on skid row injunction

172790.ME.0619.SkidClean.07
Citing an immediate public health threat, the city of Los Angeles will ask the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday to overturn a lower court ruling preventing the random seizure and destruction of belongings that homeless people leave temporarily unattended on public sidewalks.

If the court takes up the matter, the case could have broad implications for cities nationwide grappling with how to keep streets clean and safe while respecting the property rights of those who live there.

The Supreme Court filing comes after two years of legal wrangling between Los Angeles officials and homeless advocates over a controversial campaign to clean up downtown’s skid row, which has the highest concentration of homeless people in the city.

“We have an obligation to the homeless, as well as to the other residents and businesses on skid row, to ensure their health through regularly cleaning skid row’s streets and sidewalks,” City Atty. Carmen Trutanich said in a statement. “The current outbreak of tuberculosis among that most vulnerable population should serve as a stern reminder to us all of just who and what is at risk in this matter.”

Carol Sobel, who represents the homeless plaintiffs in the case, said the outbreak, which has infected nearly 80 people and killed 11, has nothing to do with the property left on the streets. She accused city officials of deliberately allowing conditions to deteriorate in order to bolster their case, saying: “They have a public health issue of their making.”

The dispute began when eight homeless people accused city workers, accompanied by police, of seizing and destroying property they left unattended while they used a restroom, filled water jugs or appeared in court. The men and a woman had left their possessions -- including identification documents, medications, cellphones and toiletries -- in carts provided by social service groups and in some cases were prevented from retrieving them, Sobel said.

In a 2-1 decision in September, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the belongings that homeless people leave on city sidewalks for a short period of time may be taken only if the possessions pose an immediate threat to public health or safety or constitute evidence of a crime. In such cases, the court said, the city may not summarily destroy the possessions and must notify the owners where they can collect them.

City attorneys question whether the 4th Amendment protection from unlawful seizures and the 14th Amendment guarantee of due process extend to people who violate a city ordinance requiring them to remove their possessions during posted cleanup times, especially when free storage is available at a warehouse operated by a local business improvement district.

They say the decision, which upheld an injunction against Los Angeles, has created a “public health disaster.” Homeless residents are leaving piles of possessions on the ground or in overflowing shopping carts, often covered by tarps and blankets, and sometimes with a note attached saying “not abandoned” or “mine,” according to a draft of the filing reviewed by The Times.

Although it may be a long shot,  Stan Goldman, a Loyola Law School professor, said the Supreme Court could decide to weigh in on how to strike the balance between a city's responsibility to promote public safety and its obligation to respect the rights of the homeless.

“It is true that you can’t just search the belongings of anyone who is just walking down the street or sitting on the sidewalk,” Goldman said. “But on the other hand, for generations, the court has given the government broad leeway to use its powers to search and seize in non-criminal cases, when there is a reasonable belief there is a hazard or threat to public safety. That applies to wiring in buildings, quarantining people who have communicable diseases or even hoarders accumulating piles of garbage in their backyards.”

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Feds try to curb outbreak of TB on skid row

Skid row street population surges back in Los Angeles 

Los Angeles skid row cleanup nets nearly 5 tons of refuse

-- Andrew Blankstein and Alexandra Zavis

Photo: Homeless people amid trash strewn on skid row. Credit: Los Angeles Times/Mark Boster

Tuberculosis outbreak: Health workers ID 4,650 at risk in L.A.

Health workers have identified about 4,650 people who were probably exposed to a persistent outbreak of tuberculosis on downtown Los Angeles' skid row and are trying to track them down for testing and treatment.

The Centers for Disease Control has dispatched scientists to Los Angeles to help local health officials determine why the disease is spreading and how to stop it.

Officials say 11 have died since 2007. Sixty of the 78 cases were among homeless people who live on and around skid row.

Scientists have recently linked the outbreak to a tuberculosis strain that is unique to Los Angeles, with a few isolated cases outside the area.

"This is the largest outbreak in a decade," said Jonathan Fielding, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. "We are really putting all of our resources into this."

Local and federal officials are particularly concerned because the cases are linked to one relatively small geographic area and one vulnerable population. But officials are concerned that the outbreak could spread beyond skid row if action isn't taken.

The public health department issued an alert several weeks ago to doctors at emergency rooms, clinics and urgent-care centers informing them about the investigation within the homeless community.

Most of the patients are men and about 20% are also HIV-positive, according to the alert, which was obtained by The Times. Six of the eight patients who also had HIV have died.

The health department also issued new guidelines for shelters earlier this year on how to effectively screen and identify patients at risk of tuberculosis. The guidelines urge shelters to appoint a TB liaison and to create a "cough alert" log for tracking patients with persistent coughs.

The county also recommended that shelters determine if incoming clients have been screened and refer those who haven't been to health providers.

The county suggests that all employees and volunteers also be screened for TB because they are also at risk.

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O.C. homeless man convicted of killing man with plank

A homeless man accused of killing another transient by hitting him on the head with a wooden plank was convicted of murder Wednesday, Orange County prosecutors said.

Sergio Camacho Gonzalez, 39, faces a maximum sentence of 26 years to life in state prison, according to a statement from the Orange County district attorney's office. He is scheduled to be sentenced April 5.

Prosecutors said Gonzalez got into an argument at a Fullerton liquor store with Andrew Petrusiak, 56, in September 2010. He accused Petrusiak of stealing his wallet. Shortly after 9 p.m. the same night, prosecutors said Gonzalez went to Petrusiak's campsite behind a Fullerton business complex and struck Petrusiak in the back of the head with a plank of wood. 

Prosecutors said Gonzalez was captured by video surveillance entering the site and then leaving four minutes later.

Two days later, a friend of Petrusiak went to visit him at the campsite, where he discovered the body and called police. Prosecutors said Gonzalez was identified by witnesses of the argument at the liquor store and again on the video surveillance at the business complex. He was arrested March 23, 2011, by Fullerton police.

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-- Rick Rojas in Orange County

Council sends boardinghouse rules back to committee

Photo: Jaiden Pratt is a resident at Jovenes Inc., a Boyle Heights nonprofit boarding home that provides housing and counseling for 18- to 25-year-old homeless men. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times
The Los Angeles City Council opted not to decide Wednesday on a controversial housing ordinance aimed at cracking down on group homes and boardinghouses.

After more than two hours of public comment and discussion, the council agreed to form a committee that will revise the Community Care Facilities Ordinance over the next three months.

“This ordinance is not ready for prime time,” council member Richard Alarcon told a standing-room only crowd in the council chambers. He triggered applause and cheers when he mentioned three “poison pills” in the current draft that he said would make it more difficult for nonprofits and group homes to care for the needy.

Advocates formed a line more than a block long outside City Hall on Wednesday morning. Many wore red T-shirts that read “Shared Housing = Fair Housing.” Some chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, CCFO’s got to go.” 

Finding a solution to illegal, overcrowded group homes in residential areas gained new urgency last month after four people were fatally shot at an unlicensed boardinghouse in Northridge. Council member Mitchell Englander, whose district includes Northridge, proposed the legislation the next week.

Critics say the ordinance would make housing veterans, alcoholics and the homeless more difficult, and cite the same obstacles that Alarcon mentioned. One clause would make it illegal for more than four people to live in the same house or apartment without sharing expenses, chores and living spaces. Another would make it illegal for more than three people on probation or parole to live in the same apartment or hotel room unless landlords obtain a special permit.

More than 150 organizations, including nonprofits and labor groups, have joined forces to fight the proposal. Maria Elena Durazo, the executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, said the “unprecedented partnership” showed the gravity of the situation.

“We are deeply concerned,” Durazo said. “Veterans who go off and protect our country deserve a way to come home and pull their lives together.”

Supporters of the regulation, including multiple neighborhood councils, stressed the need to make boarding houses and the neighborhoods that surround them safer. One neighborhood representative mentioned a home of parolees across the street from an elementary school. Another brought up a fire at a San Pedro residential hotel that killed a man last week.

“How many more assaults, fires and murders do we need to have before we get serious?” said Edward Headington of the Granada North Hills Neighborhood Council. 

Inside the council chambers, Councilman Bill Rosendahl put on his veteran’s cap to speak out against the ordinance. At one point, he asked those in the audience who opposed the ordinance to stand. Nearly everyone did.

“As many of you know, I don’t wear my veteran’s hat unless I need to,” Rosendahl said. “Today, I need to.”

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-- Laura J. Nelson at Los Angeles City Hall

Follow Laura  on Twitter or Google Plus.

Photo: Jaiden Pratt is a resident at Jovenes Inc., a Boyle Heights nonprofit boarding home that provides housing and counseling for 18- to 25-year-old homeless men. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

Richard Branson donates to Glendale shelter after Twitter challenge

Richard Branson. Credit: Scott Eells / Bloomberg

After one tweet led to another, British business magnate Richard Branson agreed Wednesday to donate $2,000 to Glendale's winter shelter for the homeless, which has been hitting its 80-bed capacity nightly despite a bare-bones budget.

Branson on Tuesday tweeted that he would donate the money to Ascencia, the shelter's operator and Glendale’s largest provider of services to the homeless, if 2,000 people tweeted the word “shoeathon.”

They did. And so Branson — through his nonprofit Virgin Unite and phone company Virgin Mobile — made good on his pledge, the Glendale News-Press reported.

The shelter, which serves Glendale and surrounding areas, is expected to use the money to supplement funding from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, a countywide agency.

The origin of the Twitter challenge goes back to December, when Shannon Smith of Aliso Viejo wore Branson’s shoes to volunteer at the shelter on Christmas Eve.

How did Smith acquire a pair of Branson's footwear? After Smith tweeted that she wanted to spend a day in the billionaire's shoes, Branson sent her his size 10 ½ sneakers.

She then sent an email to Virgin officials about her experience at the shelter and they responded with the Twitter proposition.

"I think it’s unbelievable," Smith said. "Just to think, it all started with one tweet."

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Photo: Richard Branson. Credit: Scott Eells / Bloomberg

Homeless advocates speak out about woman set ablaze in Van Nuys

Homeless bench van nuys
As police search for the family of a homeless woman who was set ablaze in Van Nuys, advocates said the assault, while extreme, highlights the dangers that transients face on the streets.

Violet Phillips, 67, remained in critical condition Monday after the December attack at the intersection of Van Nuys Boulevard and Sherman Way. Twenty percent of her body was covered in second- and third-degree burns, said Det. Chris Gable.

Police arrested Dennis Petillo, 24, of Van Nuys, who pleaded not guilty Dec. 31 to charges of attempted murder and mayhem. He is accused of dousing Phillips with an accelerant and setting her on fire as she slept on a bus bench. Authorities believe he is mentally ill.

Doctors are hoping to get Phillips’ medical history, but detectives have had a difficult time tracking down family.

"One of the things that can help determine a survival rate is past medical history," Gable said.

As is often the case for chronically homeless people, police have found few records for Phillips, not even records of police contact, Gable said.

A motive in the attack has not been released, but Gable said a lead is being investigated.

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'Polite' mayoral candidates debate in South Los Angeles

Los Angeles Mayoral candidates from left: Jan Perry, Kevin James, Wendy Greuel, and Eric Garcetti at a mayoral candidate debate in September. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

After a tense tussle about union spending in the contest, the major candidates in the Los Angeles mayoral race met Thursday night in a congenial South Los Angeles forum in which they largely agreed and avoided attacking one another directly.

Their pleasant demeanor was so marked that the forum's moderator, the Rev. Bob Gay, remarked, "Aren't they all being polite?"

"We're in a church," responded City Councilwoman Jan Perry.

Perry, Councilman Eric Garcetti, Controller Wendy Greuel and attorney Kevin James met at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's forum at Mt. Gilean Missionary Baptist Church. The gathering took place 24 hours after a heated forum in the San Fernando Valley in which Greuel took repeated jabs about whether she could be independent given that a major public employee union was backing an independent effort to push her candidacy.

Although the controversy sparked throughout the day, it was not mentioned during the evening forum, which took place with the candidates sitting together at a table in front of a largely African American audience packed in the pews. The candidates laced their remarks with references to Martin Luther King Jr., President Obama and Tom Bradley, the city's only African American mayor.

Perry's campaign is the most reliant on support from black voters, and she received the first applause of the evening for promising that, if elected, her office's employees would be diverse.

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Two homeless people found dead in O.C.

The bodies of two homeless people were discovered in separate Costa Mesa locations Tuesday, and city workers said they are taking emergency measures to shield those most at risk from the cold.

There were no unusual circumstances surrounding the deaths, Costa Mesa police Lt. Bryan Glass said. It was unclear whether the cold temperatures, which dipped to 43 degrees Monday night, played a role in the deaths.

Though police and the coroner's office did not release the victims' names, service providers who work with the homeless identified them as Robert Collins and Rita Stehnach, both believed to be in their 50s. Autopsies will be performed, according the Orange County coroner's office.

A passerby discovered one of the bodies about 2 a.m. in the 500 block of West 19th Street, Glass said. The second was found near a dumpster about noon in the 100 block of East 17th Street by an employee who worked at a nearby boxing gym.

Becks Heyhoe of the Churches Consortium, a homeless outreach program, identified Collins and Stehnach.

Collins was from Boston and was known as "a bit of a character here in Costa Mesa" for the last 10 years, Heyhoe said. "His presence will be missed."

Stehnach was known to spend time on 17th Street, largely keeping to herself. Both had health issues that could have played a role in their deaths, Heyhoe said.

"These are people who had been in our community for over a decade — who lived on our streets," Heyhoe said, "and the city is moving in a good direction, but we still need services and we need housing for people who are highly vulnerable."

As cold temperatures were expected to continue overnight, Assistant City CEO Rick Francis said that police officers planned to check in on the homeless during their shifts by visiting the locations they frequent.

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About L.A. Now
L.A. Now is the Los Angeles Times’ breaking news section for Southern California. It is produced by more than 80 reporters and editors in The Times’ Metro section, reporting from the paper’s downtown Los Angeles headquarters as well as bureaus in Costa Mesa, Long Beach, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, Riverside, Ventura and West Los Angeles.
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