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Grouped Too Tightly? : Concentration of Homes for People With Special Needs at Issue in San Pedro

June 09, 1997|JEAN MERL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Look at the map, they say, producing a grid of historic San Pedro studded with pushpins, some so tightly clustered that they nearly overlap. Each pin, they say, represents a "special-needs" housing facility--for the mentally ill, for the elderly, for homeless families, for recovering alcoholics or drug addicts or juvenile delinquents.

This, they explain, is why they organized, why they want a moratorium on such housing in their community, why they are lobbying to have local zoning controls strengthened--and why they want state and federal anti-discrimination protections narrowed.

"It's really a question of balance," said Janet Gunter, a leader of a 1 1/2-year-old group of merchants and homeowners in this port-side community.

The Community Advocates for Responsible Environmental Safety has been aggressively--and, some say, irresponsibly--campaigning to halt expansion of such facilities in their community. The group believes the facilities are bad for business in San Pedro's struggling Old Downtown area and are spoiling some residential areas as well.

Its critics--including the president of the Harbor Area Collaborative, a coalition of local social service agencies, labor unions and religious leaders--accuse the group of using scare tactics to build its ranks. And they say it is turning the disadvantaged into scapegoats for the economic blows the community suffered with the closing of its shipyards and canneries and the loss of military installations.

"This is a small clique that is bashing the poor and those of us who serve them," said Howard Uller, the collaborative's president and head of the Toberman Settlement House. "They've tried to cast this as a case of business and homeowners versus the agencies and the poor; many of us are homeowners here too."

The group's leaders, however, believe their cause extends far beyond their corner of Los Angeles and resonates in more affluent suburbs.

They have sought out homeowners and local officials in California and beyond who want more say over who can be their neighbors. They have pushed for tighter controls from Sacramento and have endorsed San Diego Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray's controversial attempt to narrow anti-discrimination protections in the Fair Housing Act, which would give cities more say in locating homes for recovering drug addicts, sex offenders or felons and would make it easier for homeowners to sue over such homes.

Closer to home, the group's activities have spawned emotion-packed divisions in the insular community, where Councilman Rudy Svorinich Jr. convened a task force a year ago to assess the situation. City officials will try to resolve some of the issues Thursday, when the council's Housing and Community Redevelopment Committee is scheduled to a hold a special meeting in the Peck Park Recreation Center.

Headed by Svorinich, the committee will consider several steps, including a controversial moratorium on additional special-needs housing in San Pedro.

"There is not going to be a moratorium on homelessness or poverty or hunger," said Mary Gimenez, executive director of the Harbor Interfaith Shelter, which provides 17 homeless families--mostly single mothers with young children--shelter and other assistance for three months.

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Harbor Interfaith's plans for an additional facility, as well as other groups' projects for housing for AIDS patients and for the disabled, could be affected by a moratorium.

"This is a very complex issue, and we are approaching it methodically," said Svorinich, whom the group has accused of delaying the issue.

"We need to find a solution that will protect the integrity of our residential neighborhoods but also allow [housing] services to be available to those who need them," Svorinich said. "We are probably not doing this as quickly as some folks would like, but it has to be done right and done right the first time."

The Svorinich task force's first job was to determine just what exists in the community.

"Special-needs housing" is a catchall term for myriad arrangements, many of which require licensing and oversight by one or more state or county agencies. Some receive public tax dollars to help care for their disabled or indigent clients or for youngsters in foster care.

Others, such as small "sober living" homes, provide a supportive environment for recovering drug addicts or alcoholics but offer no treatment programs or staffing, require no license or other permit.

There is no central registry for such a diverse lot, and, in California and many other states, homes of six or fewer unrelated adults must be treated under local zoning ordinances like any traditional family. A city cannot impose parking or other limits on a small group home that are not also imposed on homes that house a more traditional family.

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