Los Angeles aims to conquer homelessness

The county recently approved a $100 million plan to establish five regional centers for temporary shelter.

For decades, the 20-square-block area in the shadows of L.A.'s downtown skyscrapers has been vexing locals and shocking visitors. Thousands of homeless crowd through a few, small streets of businesses looking for handouts by day and burrowing in cardboard encampments and doorways by night.

In recent years, this skid row section has put a grimy, drug-and-crime infested face on what has become - by sheer numbers - the US capital of homelessness: a countywide count of 88,000 homeless each night. That number, once roughly equal with New York, has been rising in recent years while Manhattan's has fallen as homelessness and related struggles such as drugs, prostitution, and alcoholism in Times Square have dropped.

Now, Los Angeles city and county officials are attempting to eradicate homelessness countywide in 10 years with the help of voters after a newspaper series raised the issue, a windfall of property-tax revenues, and recommendations of a multiyear task force. To do so, they are learning lessons from other cities that have taken significant bites out of homelessness, including New York, San Francisco, Miami, Philadelphia, and Raleigh-Durham, N.C.

"It ought to be recognized for what it is: an absolutely historic investment by the County of Los Angeles," said supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

Regional centers for shelter

Earlier this month, Mr. Yaroslavsky announced approval of a $100 million plan that would remove downtown homeless concentrations, and set up five regional centers intended only for temporary shelter.

Helping this effort, too, are state funds distributed for mental health purposes and a 6.7 percent increase in federal funds for the homeless this year. "It may be a political opportunity that won't pass our way again in our political lifetimes," said Yaroslavsky.

The county action came as a three-year study was released by a 60-member commission. They drew their recommendations from years of focus groups and forums with the city's top stakeholders from government, churches, corporations, and nonprofits to former and current homeless people. The guiding principles include reaffirming housing as a basic human right, building new shelter capacity where it is needed, and ensuring a rapid return to housing and jobs for those who are homeless.

Putting a roof over every head

Besides a new regional approach, the report called for $12 billion investment over 10 years in 50,000 housing units that would put a roof over every homeless resident in the county.

Some local critics see that goal as unrealistic, citing that city and county officials have a history of providing paltry assistance for homeless issues.

But some national observers say commitments already made - $100 million from the county and another $50 million by the city - will do more than provide the first-year funding push the city needs for a new approach. The money and attention will also help reinvigorate national efforts now under way in 214 municipalities, which are also considering 10-year plans.

"Los Angeles has become ground zero in the national fight against homelessness," says Philip Mangano, director of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, which provides federal leadership for activities to assist homeless families and individuals. "The numbers there are so daunting and the problem so intractable, that if it is possible to make a change there, it will remoralize the country about what is possible on the issue of homelessness."

The most compelling change in the plan, say other national observers, comes from a shift in a concentration of services in one part of downtown to outlying areas. This plan not only removes huge numbers of homeless from high visibility in an isolating, urban setting, it provides more outlets for services in communities where more homeless once lived - and still have the support of family, friends, and church groups, they add.

"L.A.'s regional plan lines up well with what other cities have done that have gotten good results," says Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

But some local officials have decried the plan as both unsustainable and an attempt to turn communities into ghettos.

'Taking everyone else's problems'

"We think they are trying to force a giant center on us because they are not adequately taking care of their problem," says Michael Touhey, mayor Pro-Tem of West Covina, a San Gabriel Valley city of 110,000. "We are concerned with taking everyone else's problems."

Others worry about sustaining operating expenses for such facilities once currently allocated funds are used up.

"I am skeptical that the huge sum of $12 billion could be gathered over the time they want ... it's a fanciful figure," says Marvin Gross, director of Union Station, a homeless shelter in Pasadena.

County officials and report sponsors both admit the new plan and first-year allocations are only a start, but that continuing the status quo is a costly alternative. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department estimates it spends $32 million on arresting and hospitalizing the homeless annually. Hospitalization is 49 times more costly than providing support housing, and it costs twice as much to jail them as it does to put them in housing.

"One month's stay in a mental hospital could pay for 20 months in supportive housing, and one day in the hospital could pay for more than 45 days in supportive housing," says the plan, entitled "Bring L.A. Home."

"This problem was decades in the making and won't be solved overnight," says Mitchell Netburn, director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. "But the commitment to this at the outset really does feel like a watershed moment. It's not just rhetoric. It's been backed up with serious dollars."

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