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Cost of Inaction Is Too High

March 03, 2003

A federal court challenge that the American Civil Liberties Union filed Feb. 20 to stop Los Angeles police from ticketing and arresting people who spend the night on public sidewalks means there are now three lawsuits hindering the city's efforts to clean up its most bedraggled streets.

The lawsuits will do nothing to provide more shelter or treatment for people who live on the streets, many of them mentally ill or drug addicts. But it's also true that as the city kicks street people off one block, they just move to another nearby.

Look, for example, at the 100 flimsy tents now standing on an industrial corner of downtown near the Los Angeles River. Situated ironically between two symbols of abundance -- the large warehouses of Dynamic Builders and the bell peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes and zucchini being boxed at the Evergreen Farms packing plant -- the tents house people who have moved away from nearby skid row. Police threatened to arrest them under the city ordinance prohibiting people from living on public sidewalks.

This month, L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca is expected to propose an ambitious set of solutions to this dreadful scenario. The proposals include assisted-housing programs, which provide not only shelter but job training and, when appropriate, mandatory treatment for some living on the streets who refuse help for their mental illness or addictions.

Baca's plan may seem costly, but it is in fact much cheaper than the status quo. Under the current system, every time police arrest a vagrant, local taxpayers pay hundreds of dollars in incarceration costs. Worse, with each arrest, local taxpayers assume responsibility for that person's medical and social service costs because criminals are not eligible to receive federal and state Medi-Cal money.

Baca's key idea is to keep those people out of jail and off the streets. Rather than build expensive new facilities, he would use government-owned surplus properties. Rather than create a welfare program that drains revenue and perpetuates dependency, he would pay for the assisted housing by using new money earmarked to help people move off the streets and into productive lives.

This would include money from Proposition 46, a bond measure that in the next six years will provide $195 million to counties to acquire, rehabilitate and construct shelters for very-low-income people. That money will go somewhere. Why not Los Angeles?

With one of the nation's largest populations of street dwellers living in this region, the cost of doing nothing is much higher than the cost of doing something smart. Those who sue the city for failing in its obligation to the homeless -- as if there were an entitlement to live in squalor on the streets -- would better serve the public by supporting real-world, problem-solving ideas like Baca's.

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