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A Stand-in for Failed Representative Government : Homeless: Public-private cooperation--and leadership--to help the poor may be our only option when there is not a lot of money.

November 18, 1990|Maxene Johnson and Xandra Kayden | Maxene Johnson is president of Weingart Center Associates. Xandra Kayden is a visiting scholar at the Center for Politics and Policy, Claremont Graduate School

The police picked Bob up while he was wandering around Skid Row. Because he appeared drunk, he was taken to the Weingart Center Alcohol Service, run by the private, nonprofit Volunteers of America through a county contract. Staffers concluded that Bob wasn't suffering from an alcohol problem, so he was transferred to the Weingart Center Hotel, located in the same building.

The Weingart Center is no ordinary place. It is home to nine separate public and private agencies, but everyone who works there is cross-trained.

The hotel staff interviewed Bob to determine which of the center's programs was appropriate. It was learned that he might have a medical problem. The triage nurse from the county medical clinic, a few doors down the hall, was called. Bob has Alzheimer's disease.

The nurse also discovered Bob is a veteran, so she notified the veteran's clinic on the 9th floor. A computer check disclosed that he had been missing from the Hill Street clinic for three months.

The veteran's staff provided the social and health services Bob needed. The hotel assigned him a room paid for with funds from the City Redevelopment Agency. Coupons donated by the private sector covered the cost of his meals. He ended up in a board-and-care facility with supervised care.

Such as it is, Bob's story is a success. He did not fall through the cracks, as he had before. What caught him was a network of cooperating agencies, private and public, that assist the poor. It sounds obvious. But if you think cooperation is easy, think back to the budget battles in Washington.

The principal reason for the prolonged deadlock over how to reduce the federal deficit was not because the politicians were incompetent, lazy or corrupt. It was because they disagreed, and those disagreements reflected differences in their constituencies. That is what representative government is all about.

Yet, it is not an easy way to solve problems. The system appears to work best when resources are plentiful enough to spread around to satisfy different needs, or when there is a crisis. We may or may not be in a crisis, but we certainly do not have a lot of money--and that has made everyone angry.

One problem that has been with us for some time, but draws us to it more sharply in winter, is the homeless.

Bob's story offers a reason to hope that something can be done, even while many cities locally and around the nation are turning up their collars and wrapping their coats tightly around themselves to avoid seeing such problems as his. Consider two recent events in Los Angeles. Their common element is coordination between the public and private sectors.

The first was the announcement by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It allocated $66 million--of a total aid program of $90 million--to the city of Los Angeles. The money will be available for five years and will more than double the rent subsidies available for low-income households. This covers the difference between what the families can afford--30% of their income--and what the fair-market rent is. The subsidy is paid directly to landlords participating in the program.

As a result, nearly 2,000 homeless families will have permanent housing. There are more than 16,000 homeless families in Los Angeles County, according to a study released last spring by the Shelter Partnership.

The grant requires several layers of government--including the city's housing authority and 11 private agencies helping the homeless--to cooperate. That Los Angeles was selected to receive the bulk of the HUD funds is as much a testament to the cooperative leadership shown by both private and public sectors as it is a recognition of the fact that the city has the largest homeless population in the country.

The second story was the formation of a new coalition embracing the Wilshire/Pico area, Hollywood and West Hollywood. Spearheaded by United Way, the coalition includes private homeless agencies, hospitals, religious organizations and city agencies from Los Angeles and West Hollywood. Its goal is to identify resources for helping the homeless--more shelter space, access to health care and job training. A similar coalition, also encompassing Santa Monica and Venice, exists in West Los Angeles.

Getting together the people to share the problem they devote their lives to is a critical step--as is getting funding from HUD. When you face the reality of homelessness, where there are no more rungs down the ladder, the imperative to work cooperatively overrides the tendency to hunker down and do more of your own thing. But neither of these developments could have been possible without considerable leadership by the private sector and by government officials.

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