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Skid Row Businesses Battle County, Mayor Over Shelter for Mentally Ill

September 21, 1987|BILL BOYARSKY | Times City-County Bureau Chief

Although he is unaware of it, Carl, a schizophrenic and recovering cocaine addict, is in the middle of an unusual fight among the powerful over the treatment of growing numbers of chronically mentally ill homeless men and women on Skid Row.

Carl is one of about 80 mentally ill men who are treated at the Los Angeles Men's Place (LAMP), in a well-kept building at 627 San Julian St. Eighteen live there. But most are like Carl, who has moved from the streets into a cheap hotel and comes in during the day for medication, counseling and participation in group therapy.

Agreement on Shelter

Impressed with LAMP's success and increasingly worried about Skid Row's mentally ill, Los Angeles county and city governments, often at odds, agreed to have the organization open a residential shelter for 45 men and women in a city-owned warehouse building about two blocks away from the present facility. The goal would be to help the mentally ill become independent enough to leave Skid Row.

But even though Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and county officials enthusiastically back the residential facility, the project is stalled. Skid Row business owners and Los Angeles City Councilman Gilbert Lindsay, whose 9th District includes the area, oppose the project and won a major victory when a city zoning administrator denied the request of other city officials to convert the warehouse into a residential facility.

In an unusual hearing in City Hall Tuesday, some of Bradley's top officials will go before a little-known city agency, the Board of Zoning Appeals, and ask that the zoning administrator's decision be overturned.

With the mayor pleading for a zoning variance, just as a homeowner would in asking for permission to enlarge a house, the hearing will be a vivid illustration of the limits of mayoral power. It is also an example of the difficulty of carrying out the longstanding state deinstitutionalization policy of treating the mentally ill in community facilities, such as LAMP, rather than keeping them in state mental hospitals.

On one side will be the toy wholesalers, seafood marketing firms and other businesses in the Skid Row area they call Central City East and Lindsay, their aging but still influential representative. The business people and Lindsay have objected to putting more residential facilities and treatment centers in Skid Row, saying that they are drawing the homeless, including the mentally ill, to an area, on the fringe of downtown, that has great potential for commercial growth.

Safety Concerns Cited

"The councilman feels there has been a concerted effort to concentrate the homeless in his district," said Robert Gay, Lindsay's top assistant.

Gay said Lindsay also is apprehensive about the mentally ill themselves. "Are these chronically ill people predictable?" he asked. "Are they safe? Those are real questions. I don't think they have been answered by anybody. Clearly they need to be housed somewhere. The question is where."

Bradley, usually a staunch Lindsay ally, has disagreed. In a letter to the Board of Zoning Appeals, the mayor said: "The LAMP project is desperately needed in the Skid Row area to accommodate the mentally ill homeless who will not seek assistance outside the Skid Row area. Deinstitutionalization has forced the mentally ill on the streets, and this unique program will be one step towards a sensitive and effective approach to their needs."

Carl is an example of those mentally ill, and his story of decline from a West Los Angeles high school student to mental illness, Skid Row streets and drug use is typical.

"I grew up in Los Angeles and went to Dorsey and Hamilton," said Carl, taking time out from folding sheets in the LAMP building. After serving in the Air Force for 1 1/2 years, he was hit by a schizophrenic attack and eventually discharged. Recurring attacks followed. Unemployed, Carl drifted down to Skid Row with its cheap housing and streets full of people much like him. With money from benefit checks, he bought cocaine, which made his schizophrenia worse.

Finally, an acquaintance steered him to LAMP, where Mollie Lowery, who runs the center, and others began to work with him. Now he is taking medication regularly, is avoiding cocaine and preparing to appeal to the Veterans Administration for a full disability pension.

Lowery has been working with the homeless since 1976, first running a center in Santa Monica and then, in 1985, LAMP. Deciding to work with the mentally ill homeless, she talked to Jill Halverson, who runs a women's center in Skid Row. Halverson introduced her to Frank Rice, then an executive with the Bullock's department store chain, who helped her raise money. Rice, now retired, is still active as a fund raiser and, for one day a week, a LAMP worker. On a recent day, he was working in the kitchen, an apron protecting his executive's white shirt and dark suit pants.

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