SANTA MONICA, CALIF. -- In this liberal beach community known for tough rent-control laws and an "open-arms" policy toward the homeless, the theme of the Nov. 6 city election bespeaks a shift in attitude.

Voters are concerned about the homelessness problem -- and whether to prosecute homeless people or to tolerate their behavior.

Proposition Y on the ballot, which may set a precedent for anti-homeless movements elsewhere, would make the appointed city attorney -- currently Robert Myers, who has been frequently criticized for failing to prosecute criminal acts by the homeless -- an elected position.

An estimated 100,000 to 160,000 homeless people lived on the streets in Los Angeles County in May, according to the nonprofit Shelter Partnership Inc. The county spends more than $100 million a year on programs to aid the homeless.

Santa Monica, which provides more than 300 free meals each afternoon on the City Hall lawn and itself spends $2 million a year, has the largest homeless concentration in the county outside of Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles.

When the homeless population grew in the 1980s, the city responded with increased social programs and more food, clothing and shelter. A Homeless Resources pamphlet by the city's Social Services Commission lists 10 shelters and 10 food sites, as well as missions, medical centers and mental health services.

Residents say the homeless are everywhere -- living on the streets, camping on park benches and sleeping on the beach -- and often commit crimes, mainly petty ones but not always. Groceries hired security guards and the Police Department, whose transient-related services amount to 30 percent of its work, established a two-officer homelessness task force.

A Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce poll showed that the majority of residents felt the homeless situation was a major problem and favored tougher law enforcement. At the same time, "they are compassionate and want to help those trying to get back on their feet," said Dave Paradis, executive vice president of the Chamber.

Myers, in office since 1981 and author of the city's rent-control law, said, "People think the criminal justice system will solve the homeless problem, and it won't."

Seventy-three percent of the transients arrested last year were prosecuted and 14 percent were referred to social service agencies, according to Myers.

The crimes not prosecuted include nonviolent misdemeanors such as sleeping in the park, nonaggressive panhandling and possession of shopping carts. Myers, like other officials, said he faces an overburdened system and does not prosecute minor offenses. He said he will not run if his position is made elective.

Residents began to get irate after an 89-year-old woman was attacked by a transient in March. Frances Finnen was threatened with a pair of scissors at a local supermarket. Her purse was stolen. James Earl Tillman, a man with no known home, was arrested and later convicted of robbery and assault but acquitted of attempted murder. Eleven days before the attack, Tillman had been arrested on a felony charge of theft with the use of force.

Leslie Dutton, president of the American Association of Women and a friend of Finnen, gathered 11,000 signatures on a petition to make Myers's position elective. Dutton, a 20-year resident, said the homeless "walk out of the courtroom {after an arrest or prosecution} and stand in line {on the City Hall lawn} for us to feed them. We're saying, 'Hey, stay here, we'll take care of you.' "

Mayors from five California cities, including Santa Monica, testified before a state Assembly committee hearing here recently and called for a homelessness "state of emergency" in their cities. Asking for more state and federal assistance for housing and mental health care, the mayors said cities are assuming too much of the responsibility of caring for the homeless.

Outside the hearing, Dutton and others, billing themselves as Santa Monicans for the Citizens Protection Act and carrying signs reading, "Elect a new city attorney who will stop street crime," gathered for a brief news conference. Angered that they were not asked to speak before the panel, the small group insisted that providing handouts and shelters to the homeless only makes the problem worse. "People in homes have rights too," another sign read.

Myers said, "Many people claim the services provided by the city attract the homeless, but homeless people were here first, then the services were provided."