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Frostbite Is No Standard

January 07, 1988

Homeless men and women ought to hope for more bitter cold. Bad weather makes life on the streets even more unbearable, but that's what it takes to persuade Los Angeles city and county officials to open the emergency shelters.

Nearly 3,000 people took refuge in the shelters when temperatures neared the freezing mark for 11 days in late December and early January. More than 2,000 homeless people took advantage of extra vouchers good for a night in a cheap hotel room. But when the temperature rose to 41 degrees, by no means a heat wave, the doors closed and public compassion disappeared.

Weather is no barometer for need. Homeless people need a place to live every day--not just when the weather turns chilly. Forty degrees, however, is the official benchmark. County officials open emergency shelters at that temperature, and tough luck if it rains. The county is legally responsible for housing the homeless, but the Board of Supervisors is moving with less than deliberate speed.

Forty degrees or a chilly rain prompt city officials to open makeshift shelters, although the city has no legal obligation. The city's policy, although more benevolent than the county's harsh philosophy, is also inadequate. And it fails to satisfy several members of the City Council.

Councilman Ernani Bernardi wants the city to house homeless people year round, no matter the weather. He, along with Councilwomen Gloria Molina and Joan Milke Flores, want more than just another head count of people who need a place to live. Their vigilant debate ought to open more doors and provide more cots.

The council members are also doing some legal prodding, via a suit filed last year against their counterparts, the county supervisors. The challenge to the county's provisions for the homeless may also pay off, but court action can take years. What about tonight?

When the weather turns cold, the private shelters downtown fill up quickly. The striped yellow-and-white tent put up for the holidays by William Swain and a group of concerned citizens across from City Hall is scheduled to come down on Jan. 15. Where will the homeless people sleep next?

A new Salvation Army shelter is open on surplus federal property, a warehouse in Bell, thanks to the perseverance of Harry Pregerson, a federal appeals judge. But few homeless men know of the 100 beds or the vans that can take them there. Although the cots are located far from the greatest need, at least the charity is providing a warm alternative to a plastic-shrouded doorway or a cardboard box.

County and city officials can also provide warm alternatives to the streets. The emergency shelters should operate every night of the year--not just on cold nights--until more permanent housing is provided. Homeless men and women shouldn't have to depend on a forecast calling for frostbite to get inside a shelter.

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