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Poor and Evicted: City Seen Lacking a Strategy as Homeless Ranks Swell

January 22, 1987|DARYL KELLEY | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — It had been 35 degrees the night before, and Phuong Duong and her 2-year-old daughter still shivered from the cold.

They stood in the midday sunlight in front of a weatherworn, 70-year-old garage in the central city--their home since Duong's divorce last May.

"Last night it was so freezing. Electric blanket it worked, but so cold. I'm sick again. And Linda she crying whole night. I try everywhere, but nobody help me. I'm so scared," said Duong, 31.

Duong, who moved to Long Beach in 1980 after an escape by boat from Vietnam, is desperate. She lives in a $225-a-month hovel, an illegal dwelling that smells of gas despite a broken window. And even that will soon be taken away.

Not Enough Income

She faces imminent eviction, the result of city action against her landlord. But with a monthly welfare stipend of $498 and no support from her ex-husband, Duong said, apartment houses will not accept her.

County and city agencies, with long waiting lists for housing or rental subsidies that are backed up for years, also have been of no help.

"I tried so many people. But they say waiting list, waiting list," Duong said, tears welling in her eyes.

In her hands was a court order to respond within five days if she wished to challenge her eviction. She also held a dozen scribbled telephone numbers and letters from social service agencies, testament to her efforts to find a new home.

"They kick me out soon, but where do I go?" she asked.

Phuong Duong is the frightened human face of a large and growing Long Beach problem of how to help poor people who are evicted from substandard and illegal dwellings, say city officials and social service representatives.

Hundreds Dispossessed

The city must enforce its building and health codes to keep neighborhoods from becoming slums. But in doing that, city officials say, hundreds of poor families have been dispossessed.

"It is heartbreaking . . . And (Duong) kind of personifies what is happening," said Annette Hough, manager of the city Housing Authority, which distributes $15 million a year in federal rent subsidies to 3,300 Long Beach households but still has a five-year backlog of low-income families seeking help.

"It is a big problem. These people come up and say, 'I have to wait years (for housing assistance). What am I supposed to do?' " Hough said.

A spokesman for the Legal Aid Foundation of Long Beach said about 15 families a day show up at its Pine Avenue offices seeking help to avoid eviction. In addition, the privately funded Centro de la Raza assists about 350 low-income families a year in eviction actions, a spokesman said.

Two Families a Week

Jose G. Osuna, manager of building inspection for the city, said his department forces about two evictions a week from garages alone. Most of them are Latino and Asian families.

"These are problems that, if they existed, did not surface (until recent years)," Osuna said.

The city's building code enforcement unit was formed in 1979 in part to force improvement or demolition of increasing numbers of aging and substandard dwellings, he said. And the number of unsafe, and often illegal, dwellings has increased as thousands of new immigrants have moved to the city since then, he said.

Code enforcement efforts are applauded by longtime homeowners such as Mary Lou Roe of North Long Beach, who has complained to city officials about an Asian immigrant family that lives illegally near her.

"It's a sad situation with the homeless . . . but you don't think about it until they move into a garage next door and the value of your property goes down," she said. "Someone needs to solve these problems."

No Referral Service

The city, often criticized for its limited support of social service programs, provides no referral or monetary assistance for evicted families.

But, in recent weeks, it has taken small steps in response to the problem of homeless families, city officials said.

They point to a new City Council-appointed Task Force for the Homeless, which met for the first time last week.

And Osuna said he will soon recommend to top city management a change in law that would punish landlords who rent substandard dwellings. Now, unless landlords ignore repeated warnings to improve dwellings and are taken to court, they incur no fines, he said.

As a result, the tenants are the victims of landlords who fill substandard dwellings and have nothing to lose, he said.

City Policy Criticized

Critics, however, say the poor also are victims of municipal policy that for years has shown little regard for them.

"The city does provide housing for desperate and homeless people--trash bins, alleys and public parks," said Dennis L. Rockway, senior counsel for the Long Beach Legal Aid Foundation.

That agency last June notified the city that the housing section of its General Plan, revised in 1984, does not meet requirements of state law because it underestimates the need for low-cost housing and overestimates barriers to providing it.

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