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Baca Finds Little Unity in Homelessness Fight

Aid: The sheriff has been a lonely voice on issue. Most local leaders won't attend summit he called.

September 18, 2002|CARLA RIVERA and JOCELYN Y. STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

As sheriff of Los Angeles County, Lee Baca has often expressed outrage at the plight of people living "like animals" on dirty sidewalks and under freeway overpasses.

He also has publicly acknowledged that his own department--which each day releases scores of homeless people back onto the streets from jail--is a major contributor to the problem.

On Thursday, Baca will host a summit on homelessness at which he hopes the region's social service activists, civic officials and business leaders will present possible solutions for one of Los Angeles' most intractable challenges.

But the event, at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles, is likely to also point out the divisions and cross purposes with which the county has historically tackled the issue.

For example, as Baca is convening his meeting, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn is scheduled to be in Van Nuys discussing the city's affordable housing trust fund and has no plans to attend the homelessness summit. And except for Los Angeles City Council members Jan Perry, who represents downtown and is co-hosting the meeting, and Eric Garcetti, none of the 15 council members were scheduled to attend, with most citing time conflicts with other events. Of the five county supervisors, only Yvonne Brathwaite Burke has confirmed her attendance, summit organizers say.

For many advocates for the homeless, the competing events symbolize how the lack of coordination hampers efforts to address the issue and obtain for Los Angeles County its rightful share of federal homeless dollars.

The 'How' Is the Rub

Homeless service providers frequently compete among themselves for scarce resources and squabble over philosophies. A schism exists between affordable housing advocates, who place a priority on expanding low-income housing stock, and homeless activists who push the need for mental health, drug recovery and other social services.

"Everyone agrees that people need to get off the streets but how we should get them off is the question that divides all sides," said Mark Casanova, executive director of the nonprofit group Homeless Healthcare, who said he will attend Baca's meeting.

With a dizzying array of city, county, state and federal agencies involved in homeless issues, "it's quite easy for officials to basically not participate in developing a policy," added UCLA law professor Gary Blasi, a housing expert. "The city can say [the problem] is the county's welfare and mental programs, the county can say it's the city's redevelopment policies."

For several years, Baca has been the highest-profile official to address homelessness in the area. His interest has been applauded by advocates who nonetheless remain wary of some of his ideas such as erecting an encampment near the Twin Towers jail for street people who resist social-service provisions.

Baca maintains that his and the mayor's cross-city events do not represent a conflict between him and Hahn and that the timing was probably a coincidence. "I'm glad the mayor is moving aggressively on the subject and I'm motivated by what he's doing," said Baca. "I don't expect other elected officials to flock to my conference any more than I expect them to flock to the mayor's conference."

But Baca is also frustrated that more elected officials have not taken on his cause.

"It is time for other public officials besides myself and Councilwoman Perry to start pressing and forcing this issue," Baca said. "Excuses have run out."

Housing advocates, meanwhile, say Hahn has displayed heightened awareness of homelessness and housing issues compared to the previous city administration. Hahn's biggest initiative is support of an affordable housing trust fund that will grow to $100 million over time for the creation of low-income housing. As yet, though, no money has been allocated from the fund.

Hahn was unavailable for comment about the homelessness summit, but an aide said the mayor will send a member of his staff to the Baca meeting.

"The mayor has a lot of things that he's facing right now, with the breakup of the city and the appointment of a new [police] chief," said special assistant Eric Brown. "It's not that he's not being supportive, he's very busy. He is very supportive." Hahn recognizes that the county and the city must work together on the issue, Brown added.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, a city agency, recently commissioned several studies to help develop a 10-year strategic plan for the region. Hahn has agreed to chair a related committee that is expected to include Baca and other county officials and begin meeting in the near future.

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