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Sheriff Leads Meeting of the Minds at 'Ground Zero' for Homelessness

Aid: Activists and civic leaders gather to brainstorm on remedies ranging from telethons for housing to declaring a state of emergency.


Calling Los Angeles ''ground zero'' for the problem of homelessness in the nation, activists and civic leaders gathered downtown Thursday to suggest remedies such as telethons to raise money for housing and a Web site to reconnect homeless people to their families around the country.

The summit at the Central Library was convened by Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who has made ending homelessness a personal and departmental priority. It was co-hosted by City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents downtown's skid row, where more than 11,000 people live on the streets, in shelters or hotels. Studies estimate that there are another 15,000 homeless people elsewhere in the county.

Perry set the tone of the gathering, noting that each night at least 300 women, often with children, seek shelter on skid row and that many are turned away because of a lack of beds.

Allowing such people to sleep in the elements ''is inhuman,'' Perry said to applause from the 250 or so attendees. ''We have to look at homelessness in a new way, as a public health issue.''

Al Scaduto, chief of correctional services for the Sheriff's Department, likened the situation regarding the homeless to an earthquake that leaves thousands without shelter. He urged officials to declare a state of emergency and to obtain federal and state funds for housing and services.

Summit participants offered ideas that included the heartfelt and the practical.

Some of them were: starting a national advertising campaign to educate the public about the moral issues of homelessness; establishing small bathing facilities around the county where people could also obtain clean clothes and meal tokens; dedicating a portion of politicians' campaign funds to dental care for homeless people; holding a local or national telethon annually to raise millions of dollars to help get people off the streets.

Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti said he and fellow Councilman Ed Reyes are exploring the idea of using abandoned commercial buildings for permanent and transitional housing, which would require amending zoning ordinances. There are also plans for a year-round emergency shelter in Hollywood, home to thousands of homeless youths, Garcetti said.

Other speakers noted that there are already many successful programs that can be used as models. San Diego Police Sgt. Scott Bender, for example, spoke about that city's 4-year-old program, which teams police officers and health workers to find homes for street people.

Joel John Roberts, executive director of the group People Assisting the Homeless, advocated more one-stop service malls, providing shelter and linking homeless people with government aid and charitable services under one roof. The group has already built one such mall in Hollywood and has found permanent housing for many clients.

Other participants included state Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who has championed services for the mentally-ill homeless, and Tyrone Roy, a homeless Los Angeles man who sleeps on church steps each night. City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel and county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke also attended.

Steinberg stressed that agencies aiding the homeless must be held accountable, both for results and for their finances. Such accountability will help to offset the reluctance of many Los Angeles area residents to locate services in their neighborhoods, he said.

''We cannot proudly declare the most prosperous nation on Earth while people are living on the streets,'' Steinberg said. ''It's not a product of hard hearts. It's simply that people have not believed there are solutions to these problems.''

Many homeless people do not seek services because they feel there is no hope, Roy said. He said that any solution must include input from people like him.

''These people empathize,'' he said, ''but not one of them has lived on the street.''

Baca said that, within 90 days, he will mold ideas developed at the meeting into an action plan on which the city and county can work together.

He spoke of the need for urgency, noting that coming winter months will worsen the spread of sickness and misery. He detailed how his own department is involved in the problem, with jail as the only housing for mentally ill and other prisoners arrested on skid row for various crimes.

''Our Twin Towers jail houses one of the largest mental hospitals in the nation, which is a startling testimony to the state of affairs,'' he said. ''Every day, we release 35 to 50 individuals who have no home or family to go to, and the options for them are slim. So as much as anyone [here], I'm in the business and I want to make it better.''

Earlier this year, the sheriff proposed establishing an encampment near that jail to rehabilitate homeless people.

Some said that the absence of Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn from the summit symbolized the need for the city and county to collaborate more. Many of the proposed solutions depend on more coordination to obtain state and federal resources.

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