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Southern California Voices / A forum for community

Today's Agenda

August 02, 1993

Without a doubt, one of the most grating needs of Southern California is affordable housing. The Orange County program profiled in Making a Difference addresses one slice of the problem, that of older people on limited incomes. Its most dramatic success is in keeping seniors out of expensive, impersonal board-and-care homes, because it provides participants with companionship as well as a roof.

That combination of shelter

with other support is crucial to keeping people who are on the edge out of institutions--even off the streets, says Maxene Johnston, director of Los Angeles' Weingart Center, which is known for its innovative anti-homelessness programs. "The Orange County program deals with more than a roof," says Johnston. "It provides the element of support that seems to be missing in today's programs, particularly government programs. It's the same approach that was applied in developing the Mark Taper intergenerational center in Reseda, providing day care to both the children of working parents and elderly people who need help while their regular care-givers are working."

Johnston would apply that kind of creativity to the whole homeless issue. "Right now we're using the very, very expensive option of housing the mentally ill homeless in jails and hospitals," she says, when what they really need is some sort of "safe haven" that offers, for instance, supervision of their medication along with personal hygiene and a crime-free space. "Something short of rehab, but safely off the streets," as she puts it.

She also recommends a sort of triage: a helping hand to those people who have just fallen off the track and could rejoin the work force; a more intensive intervention for the chronically mentally ill and long-term addicts; and a tough justice-system approach to the small percentage of the homeless who are actually criminal predators. "We need to open up our minds" to a whole menu of solutions, says Johnston: "It's time for the private and sector and government to really work on innovation, on the best use of the available money. The Hilton hotel chain came about when people first started traveling widely and needed places to stay. Hospitals came about when sick people couldn't stay at home. Nordstrom's changed our thinking about retail service. McDonald's changed the food service industry. We need to apply that kind of thinking."

What if she personally had a big new chunk of money for an innovative program? "I'd buy a trailer park," she says: "There are people who would never live in an apartment or a house, but what about a trailer park? It offers, for a lot of people, the right combination of privacy and freedom at very low cost. We need to think about the homeless as a segmented market that will respond to appropriate solutions." Otherwise, she warns, we face a social "toxic spill" as welfare cuts create a new crop of homeless.

It's hard to imagine a vibrant economic recovery while the streets are flooded with ill and homeless people. But with ingenuity like that shown in Orange County, albeit for a lesser housing problem, it's easy to imagine that honest solutions can be found.

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