As builder Nathan Shapell tells it, he was talking to Mayor Tom Bradley when an idea to help the homeless came to mind.
"It wasn't a new idea," the chairman of Shapell Industries conceded.
"For the past three years, we in this company have been giving several hundred thousand dollars each year to cities and counties just to help out, but we realized that this was a drop in the ocean."
A larger impact would be made if many builders contributed at once, he figured, or better yet, if many industries gave to the cause. "So I asked, 'How about starting out with the building industry?' "
The question led to the establishment of Building a Better Los Angeles, a nonprofit corporation headed by Shapell, Bradley and Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich.
Bradley and Antonovich set aside some of their widely publicized political differences in March, with the formation of a city-county task force on the homeless, which is an entirely separate entity from Building a Better Los Angeles.
Augment Existing Program
The newer organization has a 29-member advisory committee, consisting of major developers, contractors, architects and representatives of government, agencies for the homeless and savings and loans involved in real estate development.
Its goal: to raise funds this year to augment existing homeless programs.
"For the time being, the way we can help is to give money," Shapell said. "Next year should be the year for doing more."
What more? Building something? Shapell squinted. "Maybe a special shelter could be built. I have some ideas, but it's still too premature."
At the moment, the partnership has firm commitments of $400,000, Richard C. Mahan, corporate executive director of Shapell Industries, said. And although Shapell was reluctant to pinpoint a dollar goal, Tom Silver, a spokesman for Antonovich, said the new organization is hoping to raise $4 million this year.
Provides Other Resources
It's still not much, compared to the $184 million expected to be spent in 1987 by the county to provide shelter for the homeless, but as Fred MacFarlane, a spokesman for the mayor, put it, "It will help toward providing resources that we wouldn't have otherwise, because we won't get it from tax dollars."
He figures it could be 1989 before Los Angeles realizes any of the $400 million to $500 million in appropriations being discussed by Congress for the homeless nationwide.
Coupled with economic predictions ranging from a slight downturn to a full-fledged recession by the middle of next year, he said, "we could have a repeat of the cold and a death of last winter, without the private sector stepping forward as it is now."
So far, the private sector that has stepped forward, pledging solid cash donations to Building a Better Los Angeles, only represents four individuals: Abraham Spiegel, chairman of Columbia Savings, and developers Ray Watt, Jona Goldrich and Shapell.
However, it's just the beginning of Shapell's efforts to raise funds that will be distributed through the local board of the Los Angeles Emergency Food and Shelter Program, with participation of the Greater Los Angeles Partnership.
He plans to host a cocktail party June 9 at real estate developer David Murdock's elegant Regency Club in Westwood for guests Shapell described as "people who can give substantially."
Then, he said, "we hope to have a dinner by November, because that's when the homeless will start having a serious problem." That's when the weather gets cooler, and difficulties in finding shelter are compounded by the influx of homeless people from places with colder climates.
Shapell doesn't expect to solve all the problems of the estimated 35,000-and-growing homeless in Los Angeles County by November.
He just hopes that by then the new organization can provide some job training, child care, food and shelter for the 64% that a county task force identified as being homeless for less than a year. Those are the ones, the task force decided, who are most likely to return to society's mainstream.
It's the homeless children, most of all, who tug at Shapell's emotions. He's aware of their plight through a nine-month investigation completed in March by the state's Little Hoover Commission, a watchdog agency he has chaired for the past 11 years.
"We must wake up private industry and then get government to do more," he said. "My idea is to get things rolling."
Members of Building a Better Los Angeles will contact the builders Shapell knows best. Then he hopes there will be a chain reaction that will make Los Angeles a model city.
"There's nothing wrong with the auto, textile and other industries getting into this," he explained. "And, by the way, it's tax deductible."