Taking a load off: A homeless man rests on the Third Street Promenade, a popular hangout. (File photo)

CITY HALL — Apparently some people can’t get enough of the emergency room.

City Council will consider an ordinance that would prohibit people from lingering in the emergency room unless they are awaiting service or with someone who is.

Supervising physicians from the emergency rooms at Santa Monica’s two hospitals — UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica and St. John’s Health Center — report that people use the emergency room waiting areas as shelters or public gathering spaces.

“Homeless people hanging out in our ER waiting room and refusing to leave, even when they do not need medical care, has been an occasional problem for our hospital,” said Dr. Wally Ghurabi, medical director of the Nethercutt Emergency Center at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica. “While we sympathize with their plight, we support the proposed ordinance and other measures designed to help local law enforcement help us to better take care of our community at large.”

Neither state nor local law “squarely” addresses the situation, City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said in her report to council.

When the police are called, they do what they can, she said, but “confrontation often ensues.”

“Police may lack necessary legal tools in such situations and therefore can only attempt to persuade persons inappropriately present to leave the waiting room area,” the ordinance says.

This results in a great loss of work hours, according to the report.

“Every year, Santa Monica safety personnel transport hundreds of persons to the two hospital emergency rooms within the City,” the report says. “Often, those transported by City personnel (rather than private ambulances) are homeless and substance addicted or mentally ill, or both. Many of the transported persons are not experiencing medical emergencies. More often, they have minor injuries and chronic problems that would be more efficiently or better treated elsewhere.”

The ordinance would prohibit members of the public from being present in the emergency room or waiting area unless they’re awaiting services or accompanying someone who is. Medical personnel, hospital employees, and safety personnel would be exempt.

“This law would not criminalize presence in the waiting area except in circumstances where the person has been asked to leave the emergency room waiting area and has refused,” Moutrie said in the report. “In such cases, the person would be subject to arrest and prosecution. However, it is anticipated that the vast majority will leave rather than face arrest.”

Council has adopted similar ordinances in the past, Moutrie said. For example, one ordinance bars people from being in a public parking structure excepting when parking or leaving in a vehicle. Another bars people from the Palisade Bluffs. Moutrie acknowledges that these ordinances deal with public property.

“However, emergency rooms at the two local hospitals are so vital to the community’s health and safety and City safety personnel are so frequently called to the two emergency rooms, that City staff feels that the proposed prohibition against presence is warranted,” she said in the report.

City officials don’t see any option other than the proposed ordinance or the status quo.

“So, if the proposed ordinance is not adopted,” Moutrie concludes in the report, “staff assumes that hospital and police personnel will simply continue to try and persuade persons who do not have business in the two emergency rooms to leave them so that the space can be devoted to those who need the particular services that the emergency rooms offer.”


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