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Site Selected for Homeless Leaves Activists Feeling Isolated : Social services: Nobody wanted the facility in their back yard. Now that it is slated for faraway Terminal Island, many wonder who will use it.

July 04, 1993|GORDON DILLOW | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONG BEACH — Virginia McKee has mixed feelings about not having a center for homeless people put in across the street from where she works.

She is happy that the Long Beach City Council has decided to put the controversial homeless multi-service center on Terminal Island rather than in the building at 1700 Santa Fe Ave., on the city's west side. At the same time, she is a little sad about being so happy.

"I'm glad they're putting it (on Terminal Island)," said McKee, 57, the general manager at Bill Williams Welding Co. at 1735 Santa Fe. But she quickly adds, "It's terrible to be that way, isn't it? I know we need to do something (about the homeless). But we have enough problems in this neighborhood already. You can't really blame people for not wanting something like that here. Can you?"

It has been the same story with the Long Beach homeless center since the idea was proposed. Even people who have genuine sympathy for homeless people in general do not necessarily want a center for them in their own back yards.

The issue dates back to 1987, when homeless advocates began calling for a place to put under one roof a variety of services for the homeless--employment counseling, drug and alcohol-abuse treatment, food distribution, child care, showers. Those services are now provided at a number of widely scattered locations in Long Beach, whose homeless population is estimated at 1,000 to 5,000, depending on who is estimating.

In 1990 the City Council approved the multi-service center concept, and a nonprofit group called Christian Outreach Appeal, which had been providing homeless services in downtown Long Beach for a decade, stepped in to spearhead the effort with help from other social agencies. All they had to do was find a suitable site for the center.

That is when the problems began. Nowhere in all of Long Beach, it seemed, was there a piece of property so isolated and far-flung that no one cared if a homeless center was put on it.

Christian Outreach Appeal first set its sights on property in the 1700 block of Pacific Avenue, but area residents and property owners blocked the plan. Later the focus shifted to the property at 1700 Santa Fe Ave., a 27,000-square-foot, three-story building in a commercial-industrial neighborhood west of the Los Angeles River. But there, too, business people and property owners strongly objected, fearing that a homeless center would also make their neighborhood a magnet for increased crime, panhandling, loitering, open air bathrooms--everything that many people associate with the homeless.

Homeless center project organizers insisted that steps would be taken to eliminate, or at least minimize, such problems. But the property owners were unconvinced.

There also was a feeling among Santa Fe Avenue property owners that city officials were trying to ship a downtown Long Beach problem across the river, where it would be safely out of sight.

"They're going to be dumping people off from the problem they have downtown," one neighborhood businessman said bitterly.

City officials eventually considered at least 14 sites for the center. Finally the list was narrowed to four: the Santa Fe Avenue site, a property at 901 W. 12th Street, one at 1620 W. 9th St. and a 2.9-acre site on Terminal Island, a former U.S. Navy commissary building that has no private commercial or residential activities in the vicinity, and is about as far away from the rest of Long Beach as possible.

There were clear indications that the City Council was leaning toward the Terminal Island site, which would cost an estimated $900,000 to develop. Although there are some problems with it, it has one overriding advantage. As Councilman Evan Anderson Braude, who was instrumental in the site selection, put it, "It doesn't seem to be in anybody's back yard."

Homeless advocates bitterly criticized the Terminal Island site at a council meeting last week, saying it is too far removed from where homeless people congregate to be of any use.

Marshall Blesofsky called the site selection "mean-spirited" and sarcastically suggested that, "Maybe we should just put (the homeless) on one of the Channel Islands." Another homeless advocate referred to the site as "that prison island." Another said the council would "look really bad in the eyes of the world" if it sent homeless people to Terminal Island.

Undeterred by the comments, or by Christian Outreach Appeal's threat to pull out of the project entirely if the council chose the Terminal Island site, the council voted 8-to-1 to pursue acquisition of the property. The only dissenting vote came from Vice Mayor Jeffrey A. Kellogg, who said he is not sure the city needs, or can afford, a homeless multi-service center anywhere.

Despite the council's decision to pursue the Terminal Island site, homeless advocates wonder if the multi-service center will be built.

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