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The Disgrace of County Housing for the Homeless

August 17, 1986|Jon W. Davidson and Sharon Lybeck Hartmann | Jon W. Davidson and Sharon Lybeck Hartmann are among more than 30 attorneys at Irell & Manella, a Los Angeles law firm, who have joined in efforts of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, the ACLU Foundation of Southern California and others to help the county's homeless

Not long ago a struggling family moved to Los Angeles in the hope of earning a better life. The father found a job that did not pay much, but he brought home enough for the family to get by.

One night the building in which they lived went up in flames, killing the father and children. The mother was hospitalized for horrible burns. When she was released, she applied, as a last resort, for help at a county welfare office. She was sent to a voucher hotel on skid row where, on the first night, she was attacked and brutally raped.

This woman described what had happened in a statement to attorneys working on behalf of Los Angeles' homeless. In response, lawyers for the county forced the woman to be examined under oath, asking her, among other things, how she felt about what happened to her and what she meant by stating that voucher hotels were not safe. When the woman burst into tears, county attorneys refused to stop their questioning.

In 19th-Century Britain, Charles Dickens wrote of the wide belief that workhouses should be made sufficiently unpleasant that many of the poor would rather die than go there. Now, 100 years later and a half a world away, a similar view seems to hold sway.

The true story of the woman who lost her family and was raped in a voucher hotel tells much about how the county houses its needy. That system takes everyday people who find themselves homeless under the most desperate of circumstances and puts them into places that endanger their health and safety. When they have been hurt or have complained, the reaction of county officials has been callous indifference and disbelief.

As lawyers working on behalf of the homeless, we recently filed a motion that seeks to stop the county from putting homeless people in dangerous and uninhabitable hotels. A number of us have left our usual world of business attire and marble courthouses and spent more than a month in downtown welfare offices, talking with homeless people. We have walked the streets of skid row and accompanied experts inside the county-supported hotels. Two things have committed us to this cause with a fervor we did not expect:

--Many of the homeless are people very much like ourselves. They are not derelicts. They are hard-working, worthy men and women who are in need of help simply because they are down on their luck. Although educated and skilled, they have become victims of declining employment opportunities, lack of low-income housing, family instability, crime and cutbacks in government services.

--Many of the hotels to which the county sends these unfortunate people are, as one homeless man described them, "something you would find in a horror movie."

Ted Cooper, a 45-year-old veteran and former cook, was laid off when the restaurant where he worked was sold. He was attacked on the street, robbed of all his money and clothing. He had no alternative but to ask the county for help. Officials sent him to a voucher hotel.

When we spoke with him, he had just spent his first night in the hotel and was visibly disturbed. He described the filthy and degrading condition of the linens, floors, toilets and showers, and the vermin infesting all parts of the building. He hoped to be working within the next few days, but the dirty hotel made "it very hard to keep yourself clean," he said.

"I want to look good for job interviews, but with dirty, smelly showers and no soap, how can I?" he said. "It's really a disgrace to maintain places this poorly."

After having talked to hundreds of homeless people and having seen the slums to which government consigns them, we can only share his outrage. Why should such conditions exist?

Lack of money is not the reason. The county pays nearly $1 million a month in rentals, ranging from $8 to $16 a day per room. One of the downtown hotels that prompted a large number of complaints took in nearly $400,000 last year; another, also the subject of many complaints, is currently earning a return of nearly 30% a year on its owner's original 1980 investment. While hotel owners have been making more than enough to perform adequate maintenance, they have not been doing so. Why not?

Although county regulations prohibit conditions that pervade many of the voucher hotels, the regulations are not enforced. Hotels found to have breached state and local statutes are given overly long periods to correct violations, without sanctions. In the meantime, more homeless people are sent to these squalid pestholes--encountering the rats, broken glass, falling plaster and overflowing toilets cited by county inspectors. Despite histories of chronic and serious violations, hotel owners continue to be rewarded with more homeless tenants and more taxpayer dollars.

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