Los Angeles city officials, unable to find sites for 21 of the 102 mobile homes purchased as transitional housing for homeless families, are considering placing them on parking lots, backyards and other land owned by churches and synagogues.
Under a plan much like one that was set up by churches for Indochinese refugees in the 1970s, congregations would "adopt" homeless families assigned to the trailers by social agencies. The city would continue to own the trailers and would install utilities, but the religious groups--with the help of the agencies--would care for the families and help them find jobs and permanent housing, officials said.
Leaders of local social groups are contacting hundreds of churches, synagogues and other religious and community organizations to assess interest, while Mayor Tom Bradley's office is looking into zoning and other land-use issues that may arise. City officials and religious leaders said they hope to find sites for the trailers by mid-November, although they said complications such as neighborhood opposition could delay their actual placement.
"The mayor did a good thing in committing to the trailers," said the Rev. Eugene Boutilier, head of the Southern California Ecumenical Council and a proponent of the plan, "but there is no reason they all have to be on city-owned sites. Most of the food banks and shelters in this community have had religious sponsorship from the beginning."
The proposal calls for congregations to accept the trailers for three years and to enter into agreements with local social agencies to assist with counseling and other services. Homeless families would be allowed to stay in the trailers for six months before moving into permanent housing. Besides religious groups, sponsorship invitations are also being extended to community service organizations and college campus groups, Boutilier said.
Deputy Mayor Grace Davis, who oversees homeless programs for the city, said some churches and synagogues have already expressed interest. She described the proposal as an ideal way to get more people involved in helping the homeless.
"It will open up the neighborhoods to working with the (homeless) population," Davis said.
Since the city bought the two-and three-bedroom mobile homes for $1.4 million in July, it has run into numerous obstacles in its efforts to place them. A plan announced in August to put the trailers at several low-income housing projects collapsed after City Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores complained that her district would have to take too many of them.
Flores' district, which includes half of the low-income public housing units in the city, was slated to receive nearly three-quarters of the trailers.
Late last month, after several weeks of delicate negotiations, the Housing Authority unveiled a new plan that calls for placing 81 of the 102 trailers at nine of the city's 21 housing projects. Under that plan, none of trailers will be placed if residents of the adjacent housing projects object.
Since then, city officials have been hard-pressed to find locations for the remaining 21 trailers--let alone any others that might be rejected by residents of the housing projects. Joseph Gelletich, director of housing development for the Housing Authority, said the city has considered selling the leftover trailers to other cities.
"We haven't exhausted our efforts," Gelletich said. "We are trying to get some private parties to make land available. We can use all the help we can get."
Ruth Schwartz, director of Shelter Partnership, a nonprofit organization that helps find short-term housing for the homeless, said that although the religious groups have "a lot of interest" in the trailer program, they also have questions.
"We need to assure the churches that we can work out the liability issues, and that the zoning and other underlying issues can be resolved," Schwartz said. "We can't ask the churches to do something if one of the city's departments is eventually going to say, 'No, you can't.' "
Boutilier of the Ecumenical Council said families assigned to the trailers would be carefully screened to make certain that "their problems are problems that the congregation could cope with." Drug addicts who had gone broke buying heroin, for example, would not qualify.
Success in Gardena
City officials and religious leaders said a similar program has already proved successful in Gardena. Three Gardena-area churches have been housing homeless families in trailers provided by Lutheran Social Services. Gene Painter, Gardena's chief of human services, said the churches have provided food, shelter and clothing for more than 100 families.
"It is a partnership between the city and the churches," Painter said. "And it really works."
Davis, Los Angeles deputy mayor, said city officials expect that many of the churches and synagogues interested in the trailer program will be ones that sponsored Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees a decade ago. Congregations throughout Los Angeles helped hundreds of refugees resettle in the area after the Vietnam War.