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Hope for the Homeless

January 22, 1987

The Los Angeles City Council proved its compassion by allowing some of the homeless to take warm, dry refuge for three nights in the council chambers at City Hall during the recent cold spell--but only after people had died. Mayor Tom Bradley, pragmatic and cautious, had initially opposed opening public buildings because of the costly liability risk.

Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky made the motion that finally opened the doors, but Councilman Ernani Bernardi's proposal to turn vacant public buildings into temporary or permanent shelters had been going nowhere for two years. And Councilman Richard Alatorre's motion to allow the homeless to sleep in the lobbies of public buildings died last March when the weather was balmier and the problems of the homeless were easier to ignore.

There is no accurate count of the men, women and children who have no addresses but live in Los Angeles, no census of despair, but there are estimates that 34,000 to 50,000 homeless people live somewhere within county boundaries. And the demand for emergency housing jumped by 50% in Los Angeles last year, according to a survey released last month by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. That was the largest increase in the 25 big cities studied.

Who is responsible?

Homelessness is a national problem, a county problem, a city problem and a neighborhood problem. A combination of public and private responses, ongoing and substantial from institutions and individuals, is needed to provide more emergency shelters, more meals and more medical attention. Those are short-term responses.

In California the counties provide for the health and welfare of people who have no other resources. Los Angeles County expects to spend $183 million this fiscal year on health services, mental-health attention, general relief grants, food and shelter. Los Angeles Supervisor Ed Edelman wants to do more, and more is needed. He has asked the county's chief administrative officer to provide a plan for more emergency shelter. That report is due today. We hope that the study, which warded off no chill during the recent cold spell, will help the county to increase its response.

To its credit, the city has spent $60 million on the homeless over the last two years. The Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency has provided substantial financial backing, including an additional $2 million just last month, for housing for homeless families and other people in need. The mayor has backed and expedited those efforts. But the city can also do more.

The City Council is scheduled on Friday to consider Bernardi's proposal that would convert an old electronics repair shop on San Pedro Street into a temporary facility for 90 people, along with other proposals to address the emergency. While those urgent responses deserve careful consideration, what happens when the council chambers are no longer open?

Long-term responses offer more hope. The Greater Los Angeles Partnership for the Homeless, an organization that takes no government money, is working to raise $4 million in the next three years to end the cycle of homelessness. Led by Bradley, Roman Catholic Archbishop Roger Mahony and executives from area businesses, the organization will, in March, fund five pilot shelters that address specific needs of homeless families, single women with children, single adults who are employable, and the chronically mentally ill.

Now, while the weather is cold, the Los Angeles City Council deserves credit for responding to the emergency. But even when the weather is sunny and warm, life on the streets is hard.

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