Activist Seeks to Eliminate Transient Loitering

    Community activist Esther Viti attempted to organize a group of volunteers to prevent the homeless from occupying benches in downtown La Jolla, such as this one on Girard Street, by sitting on the benches themselves in three-hour shifts. The effort attracted national media outlets, but failed to do the same with participants. (Will Parson/Guardian)

    In a move meant to address the issue of transients sleeping
    on public benches, La Jolla activist Esther Viti began a
    campaign last month to rally volunteers to sit on the benches in three-hour
    shifts to keep vagrants moving.

    No one has taken up Viti’s suggestion thus far, but the
    story has grabbed national headlines and caused public outcry from various
    organizations that aim to help the homeless.

    Viti oversees the placement of publicly donated benches
    through a program sponsored by the nonprofit merchants association Promote La
    Jolla
    .

    Jeremy Reynalds, founder and CEO of Joy Junction — New
    Mexico
    ’s largest emergency homeless shelter, located
    in Albuquerque — said he was
    surprised to hear what he considers to be an extremely insensitive proposal.

    “In the quarter century that I’ve worked with homeless
    people, this ranks as the most stupid, half-witted idea I’ve heard in my life,”
    he said.

    For five days after Viti’s proposal, Joy Junction offered
    one-way bus tickets from La Jolla to New
    Mexico
    for five transients each day to participate in
    the shelter’s “life recovery” program.

    No free bus rides have been reported, but one individual has
    arrived at the Albuquerque shelter
    from Southern California, though not from La
    Jolla
    , as a result of the story breaking national headlines.

    La Jolla resident Esther Viti sent an e-mail to community activists last month calling for members to take a stance against the presence of transients on city benches. (Will Parson/Guardian)

    Promote La Jolla has since distanced
    itself from Viti’s comments and said in
    a statement that it does not endorse bench sitting.

    However, Promote La Jolla President Deborah Marengo said the
    city’s homelessness is an ongoing issue that the organization has attempted to
    address.

    “They are panhandling constantly,” she said to the San Diego
    Union-Tribune last month. “They leave trash and other items all around business
    and storefronts. Merchants complain that they have to clean up the messes when
    they open their doors in the morning.”

    Promote La Jolla’s previous attempts
    to deal with the problem include installing metal dividers on benches to split
    the seats, but this tactic was unsuccessful because the homeless simply
    “perfected sleeping upright,” Marengo said.

    Reynalds said he understands Viti and Marengo’s concerns,
    but stressed that more constructive solutions are feasible.

    La Jolla merchants want to make a
    living and we understand that,” he said. “But if the homeless are sleeping up,
    then perhaps they are so tired we should reach out to them. You only sleep
    upright if you’re unaware of the other resources that are available to you.”

    He suggested that instead of solely removing the homeless,
    an outreach worker should educate the transients about their available
    resources.

    “The comment came across as callous, cruel, unfeeling and
    thoughtless,” Reynalds said. “I’m not saying Viti is that way, that’s just how
    her comment came across. I hope she never becomes homeless and doesn’t have to
    deal with the kind of treatment that homeless people get.”

    The controversy began after Viti sent an e-mail to 45
    community activists and several members of the La Jolla Town Council last
    month, asking for volunteers to pick up shifts.

    “After all, you MUST OCCUPY THAT BENCH continually for three
    hours to prevent that homeless person from sitting on that bench,” the e-mail
    stated.

    While Viti said she got the idea from San Diego Police
    Captain Shelley Zimmerman, Zimmerman said she explained to Viti that the
    homeless have the same right to sit on the benches as any other member of the
    public.

    The Regional Task Force on the Homeless, an organization
    sponsored by the city and county of San
    Diego
    , the United Way
    of San Diego County
    and other local jurisdictions, estimates that there are 7,300 urban and 2,300
    rural homeless in San Diego County.

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