For L.A. homeless: a gym, movies, and hair salon

The city opens a $17 million shelter Monday amid controversy that funds would have been better spent on affordable housing.

The modernist concrete-and-steel structure rises in the shadow of gleaming downtown skyscrapers, looking like a new museum or corporate headquarters. Yet its identity is given away by where it stands: in the heart of a 55-square block area of aging single-room-occupancy hotels, where homeless men, women, and children crouch in cardboard boxes, push shopping carts, or lean in doorways.

Opening Monday and trumpeted proudly by city officials is the Midnight Mission - and one of the nation's plushest homeless shelters. The $17 million state-of-the-art facility boasts a full-sized gymnasium, library, playroom, hair salon, education center, and professional kitchen. The shelter is the city's latest effort to address one of its most visible and resistant social problems: the more than 6,000 people who live on the streets.

But the fanfare surrounding the new mission also raises questions increasingly being faced by cities coast to coast. At the same time that some homeless advocates embrace such new facilities as the best way to attract homeless people into counseling and job-placement programs, others openly ask whether the money could have been better spent in finding more permanent solutions.

"Since the late 1980s, America has built a mammoth infrastructure of shelters and the number of homeless has gone up, not down. It's a bit of the if-you-build-it-they-will-come phenomenon at work," says Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. As Ms. Roman and other national officials see it, the lack of affordable housing is what needs to be addressed.

"That same $17 million could have gone a long way toward creating homes and jobs," says Bob Erlenbusch, vice president of the board for the National Coalition for the Homeless. "Affordable housing is what these people need, not a way to institutionalize their temporary status."

Ms. Roman and Mr. Erlenbusch, among others, say the issues surrounding the new facility are complex and reflect mounting pressures in cities coast to coast.

The loss of affordable housing has been driving up the country's homeless numbers since the 1980s. The gentrification of many dilapidated downtown districts where homeless people often congregate has been creating more social tension between new residents and those on the streets. As homeless populations grow, social-service alternatives such as vouchers for apartments and healthcare that many feel can offer aid without creating dependency are being stretched thin.

"Every city is grappling with the pressures of urban renewal and condo conversions that are impacting areas where homeless gather," says Roman. "They are trying to find a balance between building an infrastructure that makes it too easy to remain homeless [and finding] ways to respond to the increasing appearance of homeless on their streets."

Midnight Mission officials say they chose to build because they could no longer deal with increased demand for services in their previous facility. Other observers say there was additional pressure from city redevelopment and business officials to move their operations farther away from areas where young urban professionals are snapping up newly created loft spaces.

Looking out the window of her facility just blocks away from the new mission, Alice Callaghan, director of Las Familias Del Pueblo Community Center, points to a freshly renovated loft complex that she says is part of the reason area housing prices are getting steeper.

"The same $17 million that they spent would have bought a lot of permanent housing ... and put an end to the encroachment of luxury apartments around here," says Ms. Callaghan.

Despite the influx of luxury condos, however, mission officials say there has also long been pressure by surrounding businesses to get as many people off the streets as possible. And they say the new 500-capacity mission dining room will put an end to food lines that stretched around the block three times a day at their old facility. They say new activity rooms with television and movies for grown-ups and a separate play space for children will do much to reduce the numbers of homeless who pass time on the streets throughout the financial district.

Showers and the area's first 24-hour public restroom will be available. The gymnasium and training room will help address the lack of physical activity by those trying to recover from substance abuse.

"We have long felt that one major component missing in our drug and alcohol rehabilitation was a physical dimension to recovery," says mission spokesman Orlando Ward. "In the past, we would address the spiritual and the emotional but were neglecting real physical activity which we feel is important to rebuilding the whole man."

But 20-year local activist Ted Hayes, who runs an encampment of temporary housing just blocks away, says the building will do the opposite.

"The building of large missions in the inner cities of America only helps to keep the cycle of homeless going with what we call the 'homeless industrial complex,'" says Mr. Hayes. "A big fancy operation like this only maintains the bank accounts and lifestyles of those who run them and helps donors rid themselves of guilt."

Still others think a multifaceted approach is necessary. In this view, a combination of shelters with emergency services can help with short-term needs until longer term social and economic goals are realized.

"There are dangers and drawbacks to various approaches that can be offset by the strengths of others," says Paul Tepper, director of the Weingart Center, an institute which studies homelessness.

Either way, both sides seem to agree that citizens will continue to be threatened with instability until the supply of affordable housing is increased; incomes of the poor are adequate to pay for food, shelter, and healthcare; and disadvantaged people can receive the services they need.

"Attempts to change the homeless assistance system must take place with the context of larger efforts to help very poor people," says Roman.

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