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Harnessing the Spirit

December 01, 1985

This community is by now doing a reasonable job of feeding and providing emergency housing for the people of Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. It is not doing a very good job of caring for their other needs.

Tentative hands of help are being held out to the homeless who are mentally ill or addicted to drink or drugs. But so far the outside community involvement is too narrow, the government commitment well-meaning but too traditional, and the attitude too prevalent that drugs and debilitation are acceptable on Skid Row.

What's to be done?

Los Angeles County will receive $7.3 million in state money from Gov. George Deukmejian's mental-health budget that has been expressly targeted by the Legislature for helping the homeless. The county's Department of Mental Health is still drawing up its plans for the money, but director Roberto Quiroz stresses the need for greater outreach to find the people who need outpatient treatment and for transitional residential programs to provide therapy once a person's immediate crisis has passed. He has spotted the right problems, and the Board of Supervisors should follow his lead.

The county already runs a drop-in clinic at the Weingart Center on Skid Row, but many wary people won't drop in. The supervisors should consider going beyond traditional approaches and contracting with some nonprofit groups that have already built rapport with the homeless mentally ill and thus could provide treatment in a setting where the homeless don't feel as threatened as some do in conventional clinics. The county should also consider increasing its housing-voucher payments if an organization is able to provide counseling services as well as the basic bed for the night.

There are also efforts under way to enlist area psychiatrists to volunteer for work on Skid Row. Those efforts deserve every encouragement.

Finally, commitment laws need overhauling, because people who clearly need help but refuse it cannot be held long enough for anything more than basic stabilization. As Quiroz said, the laws need to reflect both the right of an individual against unwarranted commitment and the right of the individual to receive the treatment he needs.

The stereotype of Skid Row populates it with winos. Obviously alcoholism remains a major problem; there is a detoxification program at the Weingart Center. But drugs are the growing menace. They spawn violence. They are blatantly traded on the streets and in the rundown hotels of downtown Los Angeles. And their ill effects go unchecked, because there is no full-blown commitment to drug treatment on Skid Row. If law-enforcement officials concentrated on curbing the drug trade, and health officials on treating its victims, Skid Row and its downtown neighbors might be far safer.

The community is approaching the season of generosity. By thinking creatively, by tapping new sources of money and personal involvement, by increasing government leadership and commitment, it can harness that generous spirit for those who are so in need of compassion.

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