A group of business, political and civic leaders are pushing a ballot initiative they say would create the first comprehensive statewide approach to the problem of homelessness and make slumlords and other health and safety code violators foot the bill.
Organizers of Californians Working Together said they are responding to a "failure of political will" at all levels of government to deal effectively with homelessness.
By going directly to the voters through an initiative, supporters hope to cut through the jurisdictional, philosophical and partisan bickering that has hampered legislative attempts to coordinate social programs and secure sources of funding.
State Board of Equalization Chairman Conway Collis, who has spearheaded the effort, said the housing and nutritional assistance initiative is intended to deal with the problem of homelessness from "getting the homeless into a shelter to getting them into a job." It is hoped the measure will qualify for the November ballot.
"Just as with Prop. 13," the tax reform proposition that touched off a tax revolt nationwide, Collis said "it's time for California to show leadership in another area."
California is believed to have one of the highest populations of homeless in the nation, with an estimated 33,000 in Los Angeles County alone by one widely cited estimate.
Efforts to deal with the problem have often pitted cities against counties and social service providers against the government agencies that fund them. The City of Los Angeles has sued the County of Los Angeles, accusing the county of failing to effectively operate the general relief program.
Even the initiative's sponsors admit it is not a panacea for homelessness, and it has its detractors within the community of homeless activists. "I can't get real excited about this. I wish I could," said Nancy Mintie, director of the Inner City Law Center.
"The problem I see is that the money would go to the county supervisors," Mintie said. "They are the biggest stumbling block we have in Los Angeles."
Mintie said the county has not been responsive to the problems of the homeless and has misused money it received from the state for homeless programs, spending much of it in affluent areas. "A program is only as good as the people who run it," Mintie said. "General relief could be a good program, but it isn't."
Avoid Legislative Process
It is those kinds of problems that convinced Collis to seek a ballot initiative and avoid the legislative process.
Collis said the initiative program could raise $50 million to $90 million in its first year and fund an additional $150 million in revenue bonds--all without using any tax money.
Under terms of the initiative, new fines on existing violations and infractions would be levied for safety, health and building code violations.
Currently, violators are given warnings and told to correct the problems. Only after repeated infractions are they prosecuted criminally.
Under the initiative, landlords, restaurant owners and commercial building operators would face fines of several hundred dollars each time inspectors find a violation.
In Los Angeles County alone in 1987, there were 122,000 violations cited by inspectors. But only 1,200 prosecutions were brought, according to Collis. At an average estimated fine of $200 for each infraction, the program would have raised nearly $25 million in Los Angeles County alone last year.
Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, who was an early supporter of the initiative, said the program could act as an incentive for inspectors to be even more diligent in seeking violations.
"This is a way to tap into something that now serves no purpose," said Reiner of the new fines. "It will provide a tremendous source of funds."
In order to receive their share of the funds, counties would be required to submit a plan for addressing the homeless problem to a new agency to be created in the state Department of Housing. The plans would be required to include a wide variety of traditional services--such as housing, medical assistance, drug and alcohol abuse programs and job training--and would also have to offer some innovative plans.
One such idea is a revolving fund to help the working poor secure an apartment. Often working homeless people have enough money to pay rent, but lack savings to put up the first and last month's rent and various other deposits. The revolving fund would act as a bank to lend homeless workers the money necessary to get established.
The initiative would also establish a California Savings Bond, modeled after the federal program, that would be sold in small denominations of $25, $50 and $100. The bonds would be used to finance low-income housing and would be paid off by money raised through the fines on code violators.
Collis said he expects that many small investors would buy the bonds. "Our polling told us that people want to help," Collis said. "They want to get involved in working for a solution."
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