Plight of homeless tests Los Angeles

Disabled and out of work, Larry spends most of his days standing in soup lines at one of this city's Skid Row missions or hanging out at ``home'' - a cot that sits beneath an open-air canopy on a dirt field near downtown. He is one of some 600 people who have taken up residence at what has been called the ``Dust Bowl Hilton'' - a city-sanctioned campground for the homeless. With less than two weeks to go before the encampment is scheduled to be closed, there is considerable speculation over how well it has worked.

This is more than just idle gossip. The campground represents one of the most unusual experiments in the United States in trying to deal with the homeless, even if on a temporary basis. A number of cities have expressed interest in possibly duplicating the Los Angeles campground.

Many of the residents find the camp preferable to sleeping on streets or in Skid Row missions and shelters. But the verdict among a number of camp officials and homeless advocacy groups has been negative.

They fault the camp for its dirtiness and lack of adequate facilities and social services. They say they believe it is no way to deal with the destitute, no matter how short term the program.

City officials have learned a few painful lessons. While arguing that the camp has gotten many people off the street and been better than ``warehousing'' them in shelters for two months, they concede that it has been a costly experiment and one that has taken a lot of time to oversee.

``It has been better than just the 6-in-the-evening-to-6-in-the-morning shelters,'' says Grace Davis, Los Angeles deputy mayor, who oversees much of the city's effort to provide for the homeless. But, she adds, ``I think we are just barely getting a handle on dealing with whatever their problems are.''

The camp itself underscores the depth of the homeless problem in Los Angeles County. Like much of the rest of urban America, the area has been faced with prodigious numbers of street people and tight budgets to deal with them. A good number of the homeless are from out of state. They are attracted to the area by the balmy climate, its image as a palm-fringed paradise, and the belief that fame and fortune can be found just around every corner.

``What happens when they get here is that they find it a very expensive place to live,'' says John Dillon, director of the Chrysalis Center, a self-help agency on Skid Row here.

Officials estimate that there are more than 35,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County, probably more than in any area other than New York City. Traditionally, the homeless here have clustered in the Skid Row section, where many social-service agencies exist.

The camp was established in June as a temporary place for the homeless to live after police, under pressure from local businesses, began cracking down on the growing ranks of homeless setting up shanties on Skid Row streets. It sits on a dusty field owned by the local transit agency in an industrial area near downtown.

Barren and treeless, the expanse is dotted with city-provided tents and sideless canopies, under which are shoehorned rows of cots. The camp is managed by the Salvation Army.

The site is hot, dusty, and unseemly enough that it won't be mistaken for a national park. Yet some residents have grown accustomed to it.

``It beats sleeping in an alley,'' says denim-clad Larry, who migrated here from Texas to find work.

``It's OK,'' says a woman nearby. ``The tents are nice. I don't like the cots.''

Some residents, while critical of this camp, say they believe the concept could work if the homeless were given more autonomy in running the sites.

Critics, though, don't think such outdoor facilities are a good way to deal with a growing social problem. They consider the camp unhealthful, shy on medical and other services, and a costly diversion to getting at the root causes of homelessness, such as providing more low-income housing.

City officials believe they have been able to deliver more services - such as job training and employment counseling - than residents would have received at overnight shelters. But the camp has taken its toll on their patience and the city treasury: Deputy Mayor Davis estimates that it may cost more than $500,000 by the time it closes. The camp is scheduled to close Aug. 10, but even that has become the source of some dispute. This week a group of two dozen camp residents filed suit to prevent the city from closing the site, contending it does not have alternative housing lined up.

The city has mapped out a general strategy to deal with the 600 residents, but not all of the details have been settled. It plans to buy 67 mobile homes to house the homeless families. Vouchers are expected to be given to some residents to stay in hotels, while emergency-shelter facilities are being sought for 250 others.

Whether or not all this will be ready in time, both the city and county are still struggling to deal with the legions of other homeless people.

The depth of the frustration involved here surfaced last week when the city decided to sue the county to compel it to provide more housing and relief for the needy. Mike Antonovich, chairman of the County Board of Supervisors, responded by saying the county would file a countersuit against the city.

The Los Angeles City Council is working on a proposal its sponsors contend will be a ``comprehensive policy'' for coping with the homeless. Meanwhile, Mayor Tom Bradley has proposed a one-year moratorium on the demolition of old Skid Row hotels - a move that many advocates for the homeless believe will at least prevent thousands more people ending up on the streets.

At the state level, a bill introduced in the Legislature last week would put an $850 million bond measure on the ballot in 1988 to create housing for homeless and low-income people statewide.

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