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Leaders Who Look Away

September 19, 2002

Stroll through parts of downtown Los Angeles, where scores of people camp in ratty tents or lie passed out drunk in doorways and it's hard to imagine too many concerns so pressing that a civic leader would snub the summit on homelessness that Sheriff Lee Baca is hosting today at the city's Central Library. Yet according to a story by Carla Rivera and Jocelyn Y. Stewart in Wednesday's Times, only Los Angeles City Council members Jan Perry and Eric Garcetti and Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke plan to be there.

No doubt the other elected officials have reasons for not showing up to help brainstorm solutions with the region's social service activists and business leaders. But underlying the unofficial boycott is a cynical eagerness to dodge the tangle of problems that has made parts of Los Angeles look like Calcutta and left the county's most vulnerable adults to fend for themselves in chaotic urban encampments.

True leaders abhor the void such responsibility-shirking creates. Sheriff Baca has had the courage to step in. He also has a reason: Each year, police and sheriff's deputies arrest thousands of addicted and mentally ill people--mainly for petty crimes such as trespassing and shoplifting. These men and women do their time in the Twin Towers jail and then spill back out to again languish under bridges or in alleyways.

But this tragic cycle is hardly the sole responsibility of the Sheriff's Department. And by now the public should be as fed up as the sheriff seems to be with supervisors and council members who play hot potato with the problem, tossing it from county to city and back again.

That Mayor James K. Hahn is scheduled to attend another related and worthy meeting today--discussing the nation's housing crisis--only spotlights local government's ineptitude at coordinating its efforts.

It also points to another glitch: The word "homeless" has been contorted and politicized to the point that it gets in the way of attempts to solve the many social problems some would like the term to encompass.

A New York Times article this week captured the oxymoronic way some now use the term. The story detailed a debate about "homeless" people who turn down repeated offers of subsidized apartments and are then threatened with eviction from the shelters in which they may have lived for months or years.

Los Angeles too has its share of poor people living grim lives in shelters, motels and substandard housing. Addressing the issues that make it so hard for them to find good housing is critical.

But the first business at Baca's summit should be to ferret out ways to help the people who sleep on the city's sidewalks and in its parks--most of whom are mentally ill and addicted. Their relative helplessness makes them a priority.

So does their effect on the lives of others. Hardest hit are the people, usually poor, who live and work in the neighborhoods where street encampments flourish. But the problem is countywide.

Indeed, it's hard to imagine any route to the Central Library an elected official could take that wouldn't offer glimpses of a man or woman who calls an alley or freeway underpass home. If only our so-called leaders had time to make the trip.

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