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Valley Perspective

Good Times but Not for the Homeless

The care we give our neediest 15,000 neighbors reflects the Valley's values.

November 22, 1998|JERRY ROBERG | Jerry Roberg is executive director of the Rescue Mission Alliance

There are always two sides to a story. We hear that the economy is good. We hear that home prices in the San Fernando Valley are increasing. We see new companies opening for business.

On the surface, that's good news. But if you dig a little deeper, you will see that good economic times for some can create hard times for others.

Unaffordable housing, layoffs at companies looking to be more efficient, reductions in government programs to care for the mentally ill, divorce, the availability of cheap drugs and a variety of other factors are part of an equation that keeps an estimated 15,000 men, women and children homeless in the Valley.

This may be a shocking figure. However, despite a decade of great attention to the issue--highlighted by such fund-raising programs as "Comic Relief"--homelessness remains a serious social issue for the Valley and the region. Although Thanksgiving usually gives us reason to think about helping the homeless, the attention this problem once received has faded.

Take a second, however, to consider the impact of homelessness on our lives. Each day, police officers come across a variety of situations involving homeless individuals--from petty crimes (usually committed to get money for food) to sleeping in city parks, to public drunkenness and so on. Officers get calls about suspicious-looking people who turn out to be merely a homeless man or woman walking down the streets. These are calls and responses that divert police time away from issues that most of us would consider more serious public safety matters.

The homeless are surviving as best they can. You may not notice them right away, but dozens of volunteers know they are there because they reach out to them every week. The sad truth is that almost all the men, women and families we encounter don't want to be homeless. Many are too proud to ask for assistance or they lack the skills or means to get back on their feet.

There are a few programs in the Valley helping the homeless, generally to provide shelter, food and, if needed, medical treatment and detoxification. Unfortunately, there are severe shortages in emergency shelters, with beds for only about 2% of the Valley's homeless population.

And by some accounts, the homeless population is growing, not getting smaller. One clear answer to effectively reducing our homeless population has always been comprehensive, long-term programs that first give the hope, then the skills so people can lead productive lives. A meal, a shower and clean set of clothes will get many on the right path. Counseling, job training and education are essential to creating a life away from the streets.

Although it may not be the social issue of the year, homelessness still requires our attention, our compassion and our effort. Let's not be fooled by our current good economic times. Not everyone is enjoying the ride. The way we care for those most in need is truly a reflection of the compassion of the entire San Fernando Valley.

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