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The Recalcitrant Too Need Help

August 06, 2000

Homelessness remains one of the greatest social challenges in Los Angeles. Those who fall out of the system through a personal tragedy such as illness or job loss often manage to get back into housing, but too many have multiple, often intractable problems. A new report pinpoints the toughest to reach, a subgroup of street people with chronic problems who often resist help. There is a critical need for housing designed specifically for these severely mentally ill people, including some who also abuse drugs.

The "hardest-to-reach homeless population" was identified in a study of cold weather shelters released last month by the nonprofit Shelter Partnership. This agency has for years provided technical assistance, research and resources for providers of services for homeless people.

On any given night in Los Angeles, an estimated 40,000 homeless people are living outside or in temporary shelters. The study is an examination of those who use the county's cold weather shelters. These 20 facilities, many in National Guard armories, are opened when the National Weather Service forecasts a 50% or higher chance of rain or when the temperature is predicted to drop below 40 degrees. In such circumstances homeless people who do not go to traditional shelters often show up. These facilities, operated during the winter since 1987, are intended to prevent deaths from exposure.

Homeless people who are most resistant to help often shun regular shelters and religious-based programs because they do not want to follow rules requiring them to remain sober, accept counseling, look for work, attend prayer services or participate in a structured environment. According to Shelter Partnership's executive director, Ruth Schwartz, "This is a population that is not anxious to receive services and who need time, patience and trust." Hard commodities to find on the streets. The reasons for investing the time and money are more than charitable: The homeless severely mentally ill are often the most disturbing as well as disturbed of street people.

The report recommends so-called "safe havens," which are high-tolerance shelters that place no limit on duration of stay. In Los Angeles, a nonprofit group called LAMP runs the best-known safe haven, and there is money in the state budget for homeless assistance that should go to providing additional such services. These special programs cost more than help directed at the general homeless population on skid row, but the effort should still be made.

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