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Federal Review Finds No Reason to Halt Homeless Shelter

July 21, 1994|SUSAN WOODWARD and JAMES BORNEMEIER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Federal officials reviewing plans for a homeless center on surplus Navy property in San Pedro say they have no reason to reverse their earlier approval of the project, although a final decision has not been made.

The Department of Health and Human Services' continued support of the plan, which hundreds of local residents have fiercely challenged in recent months, is one of several developments in the ongoing dispute over bringing the center to the Harbor area.

In January, the department approved an application by Turner's Technical Institute Inc. to use housing on Taper Avenue for homeless families. Turner's, located in South-Central Los Angeles, would use the 27-acre site after the Long Beach Naval Station closes this summer and moves its personnel.

But department officials agreed to review their decision after local politicians and community members raised questions about the ability of Turner's to house up to 880 people. Opponents also pointed out inconsistencies in the group's application for the land.

During the height of public opposition, Turner's onetime executive director, Johnathon C. Marzet, resigned from the organization amid claims that on the application two letters of endorsement were forged and that he had falsified his academic qualifications. Those reputed to be endorsers of Turner's plan said they did not sign the letters. After he resigned, Marzet acknowledged false claims of college degrees.

The tumult, however, apparently has not changed the opinion of Health and Human Services officials about Turner's qualifications.

Earlier this month, The Times asked the department if its review had uncovered any inaccurate or misleading material in the Turner's application. In a written response, Kathleen Furey Martin, the official who approved the selection of Turner's, said: "To date, our review has not provided any basis on which to reverse our previous approval of (Turner's) application."

Although staff members have completed the review, a final determination on the project "has not yet been made," said Martin, director of the department's division of health facilities planning.

Her statement drew angry local reaction.

"(The department) is basically saying it's OK to commit fraud or forgery," said Doane Liu, chairman of the San Pedro Area Reuse Committee. "It's probably not going to be pursued by any federal agency, but it's a federal crime and we view it that way."

City Councilman Rudy Svorinich Jr., who represents San Pedro and also is fighting the homeless center, called Martin's response "ridiculous."

"HHS knows they made a mistake with a hasty decision. Now they're so afraid to admit their mistake they're going to allow their incompetency to prevail," Svorinich said.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Marina del Rey) said Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala is personally directing the review and "told me on the phone that they hadn't started a serious review."

Victor Zonana, an HHS spokesman, said the secretary considered the Turner's review a "serious matter" and had asked a high-level aide to monitor the department's handling of it.

"No final decision has been made," Harman said. "Rumors are rumors, and I'm hopeful we'll find a solution that is acceptable to the community."

Meanwhile, a review by the Department of Housing and Urban Development has apparently been completed, but officials said no decision has been made. In response to local concerns, HUD officials re-examined safety questions about two aviation fuel tanks near the 144 units of housing at Taper Avenue.

Opponents say HUD should not have declared the land suitable for the homeless shelter because the tanks are closer to some buildings than the 2,000 feet required under federal regulations. But HUD's environmental review reportedly found that the fuel does not pose a threat because it is not explosive, said a local official who did not want to be named.

Documents provided to Svorinich show that a HUD official found that several buildings on the site should not have been listed as suitable for occupancy because they are "within 2,000 feet of flammable or explosive material."

That information, housing officials in Washington said, should not have been released. It did not reflect any final decision, said department spokesman Jack Flynn.

If HUD officials decide that the land is not suitable for the project, HHS cannot allow Turner's to proceed.

In a related matter, The Times has learned that Los Angeles city officials last summer denied an application by Turner's for funds to expand a child-care center in South-Central. A child-care facility is one of many services that Turner's plans to operate at the Taper site.

The organization had applied to the Community Development Department for $400,000 to renovate the building it leases in the 8900 block of South Broadway. But city officials doubted Turner's ability to undertake and operate such a project.

". . . (Turner's) experience in the child-care field is limited to informal child-care services and referral of child-care services to needy families," city officials noted in a report.

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