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Hurdles Hamper Homeless

February 21, 1988

Money has usually been the first hurdle that social service agencies face when trying to provide for the homeless. But another obstacle--community resistance--seems to be moving into first place.

This obstacle has many faces: fear of crime, declining property values or increased traffic; and too often it's built on emotions rather than facts.

Two recent examples point up the problem.

In Escondido, the North County Interfaith Council, an energetic staff of 10 plus 400 volunteers, fed, counseled and provided other services to more than 29,000 people last year, all without government aid.

Now the county has given the council a $107,000 grant to set up a shelter for 10 homeless men, screened to eliminate alcoholics, drug addicts and the mentally ill. The shelter would be one of only two for single men in North County, where it is estimated that there are 1,000 to 1,500 homeless people.

However, the first site chosen by the coalition of churches--a commercial property on Escondido Boulevard--ran into stiff opposition from neighborhood residents. A flyer filled with inaccuracies and denouncing the center was distributed in the neighborhood. It predicted an influx of "degenerates" who would reduce the neighborhood to a skid row. Not surprisingly, the flyer generated community protest against the project.

This prompted the City Council to withhold approval of the site, which already had the blessing of the Planning Commission.

An alternative site, a storefront building on Rose Street near Valley Parkway being purchased by the city, is now before city planners, who are expected to act this week. If approved by the Planning Commission and the City Council, the city would lease the building to the interfaith council at a nominal rate to house its shelter, soup kitchen and offices.

But like the Escondido Boulevard site, the new location has residences nearby and could run into opposition.

Escondido has already shown considerable leadership by purchasing the building for social services. NCIC has worked hard to design a shelter that will have minimal impact on the neighborhood.

We hope that neighbors of the new site, many of whom have used the services of NCIC, will show their support and ignore the emotional arguments that might surface. The greater responsibility, however, falls to city planners and the City Council members, who should base their decision on facts and not reject this promising proposal for the wrong reasons.

The other recent example of "not in my back yard" happened in San Diego, where the city has been trying to encourage private developers to build residential hotels composed of low-income, one-room units with shared kitchen or bath facilities that rent for $200 to $400 a month.

One of the city's major concessions was to allow developers to forgo parking spaces at the hotels, most of which are downtown. However, after permits were granted for 347 units with 84 parking spaces in uptown areas, the City Council quickly changed the requirement. Now builders of residential hotels in the crowded uptown areas must provide a parking space for each unit, an expensive provision that would likely put the units out of the reach of low-income people.

Councilman Ron Roberts, apparently reflecting his constituency, said he was concerned that "we were literally trying to build a slum."

The absence of parking requirements probably was too extreme. Some residents of these hotels undoubtedly will have cars. Requiring one space per unit, when most units are the size of a bedroom, however, may be overreacting.

The city is plowing new ground, which has resulted in the first new residential hotels to be built in 73 years. But as the city refines the requirements, it must not lose sight of the goal to provide much-needed housing that is affordable for low-income people.

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