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Sheriff Baca's Bold Vision

April 07, 2002

Unsettling thumps resonate through the carpet in the well-appointed Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department office. The deputies seated at a conference table say they're used to this sound, the routine lashing out of mentally ill inmates housed one floor below in the Twin Towers jail--the largest de facto mental institution in the United States.

This week Sheriff Lee Baca will meet with civic leaders to try to win support for a bold, if admittedly limited, solution to one of Los Angeles' most neglected problems: people living defeated lives beneath flimsy tarps, along urine-scented alleyways and under freeway overpasses.

Baca has involved himself in this issue for two reasons. First, because about 40 of the 400 prisoners released by the jail each day have no place to go once they spiral down the Twin Towers concrete stairwell and out into the city. Second, because someone needed to fill the leadership void created by politicians who run from a problem they see as a career killer.

The sheriff's Homeless Public Safety Center, proposed for an abandoned four-acre industrial site between Olvera Street and Chinatown, would temporarily shelter the city's most destitute: people who suffer from mental illness, substance abuse or both and who cycle, expensively, pointlessly and tragically, from hospitals to jails to the sidewalks. It would replace a landscape of corrugated tin and razor wire with 25 canvas-topped structures set in a grassy, tree-shaded park. Each structure would have eight private pods with beds, lockers and heaters, revolving around a central kitchen, laundry and bathroom.

In public, most civic leaders vaguely support Baca's concept. Privately, however, they grouse: "Why in my district--why not the Mojave Desert?"

Chinatown leaders worry about center residents wandering over to panhandle. They blame crime in their community on inmates released from the jail. But the center would actually reduce crime by giving the people who spill out of the jail not just food and toilets but supervision, counseling and job training.

These are proven ways to ease people with mental illness toward permanent housing and productive lives. They save taxpayers money in the long term by reducing repeat hospitalizations and incarcerations for what are usually nuisance crimes such as shoplifting or trespassing. Like most other parts of the city, Chinatown has had mentally ill indigents living on its streets since the wholesale release of patients from state hospitals that began in the 1960s. The center proposed by the sheriff would give some of them a place to take a shower and sleep.

Resistance also comes from the hodgepodge of agencies, shelters and missions that would compete for the $2.6 million that Baca projects as the annual cost to run the center. Many of these groups do a brilliant job in this overwhelming crisis, in some cases working right inside the jails. But they have not succeeded in bringing vast numbers of people with severe mental illness and addictions off the streets.

It's time to help them. While Baca's shelter would be run by the respected and experienced Volunteers of America, its direct link with law enforcement offers the tremendous advantage of subtle coercion. A deputy who picks someone up for trespassing, for instance, can offer two options: Give the shelter a try or go to jail.

Los Angeles law enforcement has a deservedly bad reputation for bullying mentally ill indigents, sometimes with fatal results. But Baca has demonstrated a rare determination to change that, to make sure every officer respects the dignity of this vulnerable group. And contrary to some civil libertarians' warnings, life at the Homeless Public Safety Center would bear little resemblance to incarceration.

Rather than simply ticking off what they don't like about Baca's center, civic leaders should accept the sheriff's invitation to join a community advisory board that could help guide its development in a way that's sensitive to their concerns. There will, of course, be obstacles, including environmental assessments and zoning hurdles. But they can be overcome if elected officials--Mayor Hahn? Supervisor Molina? Councilman Reyes?--pitch in to problem-solve.

Far from sullying the city, the center would replace an abandoned factory with a compassionate, pragmatic attempt to confront a shameful problem the city has ignored for too long.

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