LONG BEACH — The issue of what to do about the homeless in this city has escalated from controversial to volatile.
In a strongly-worded letter to the City Council, members of the Mayor's Task Force on the Homeless said they seriously considered resigning after reading a city review of their recently released interim report.
The task force was created to evaluate the number of homeless in Long Beach and to develop a program to assist them as well as identify services already available. In its interim report, the group described its work so far, including numerous statistics on what was being done for the homeless. In its review of the report, the city corrected or updated much of the information, citing various sources including its own Housing Authority.
The task force's letter charged bias on the part of city officials who, task force members said, appeared to have spent more time preparing the critique than in assisting the group.
Comments Bring Reaction
Reaction to the city review among task force members ranged "from disappointment to outrage," according to the letter the group gave the council Tuesday.
City Council members did not take the comments lightly.
Councilman Edd Tuttle referred to the comments as "obnoxious and highly abrasive." Councilman Ray Grabinski called the letter "a bombshell." And Vice Mayor Warren Harwood said the task force was engaging in "political arm-wrestling."
This is not the first time the task force and some of the council members were adversaries, but it was the first time they collided so strongly in a public forum, leaving some members of both the task force and the council wondering why the two have not worked better together.
'Communication Gap' Seen
"I frankly wonder why? What is it about the make-up of the task force? What is going on?" task force member Luanne Pryor asked after the confrontation Tuesday.
Bonnie Adler Lowenthal, the group's vice chairman, said, "I think there has been a real communication gap."
In part, Lowenthal and others say, the problems may reflect a general unwillingness to admit that Long Beach has a homeless problem.
"There are people who would like to deny we have homeless," Lowenthal said. "It doesn't mean they're not compassionate people," but they are ignorant of the problem, she said.
Pryor said, "I think that interim report for some reason was upsetting and maybe unexpected. . . . They didn't want to face it was happening here."
From the outset, there was reluctance on the part of some council members to appoint a task force, Councilman Evan Anderson Braude said.
Officials were reluctant because they felt "there was no easy solution," Braude explained, adding he now believes the council supports the task force.
But Braude said after the meeting that he agreed with most of the remarks in the task force's letter. He called the city's review "extremely harsh" and said that he was "livid" when he first read it.
Braude took much of the criticism Tuesday from council members angry that Braude, who had received the task force's letter Friday, had waited until only minutes before the meeting before giving it to the council. Mayor Ernie Kell asked the task force to address future correspondence to him and the entire council.
Lowenthal explained after the meeting that "We went through Braude's office because it was the only office which aggressively asked us what we needed. His aide, Carole Estes, was the only one to consistently attend our meetings."
Issues of protocol and procedure have dogged the task force since the beginning, members said.
"We started out with absolutely nothing," Pryor told the council, adding that a list of resources and procedures would have helped them.
Braude said earlier reluctance by the council has given way to support, so if some distance between the task force and the council remains, it could be attributed in part to "internal politics--who's on that committee and the city staff," said Braude, who declined to elaborate.
Task force member Dennis Rockway said he believes his part in a suit against the city may be a contributing factor to the disharmony. Rockway, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Foundation of Long Beach, represents five low-income residents who sued the city in June over what they said was a lack of affordable housing.
Task force members said they have received little help from the city and pointed to the city's review as proof. The 29-page document cited numerous previously unmentioned resources and notes that some of the items in the task force report were already under review by the city.
Task force members expressed irritation upon learning that city officials had withheld information that could have made their work unnecessary or easier.
"We want the staff to share their resources. We were in a state of shock when we saw the staff's resources," Pryor said.
Kell responded that city staff would have gladly provided assistance had they been asked.