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Several Take Shelter, But Project Still Lags

After months of delays, three families move into a motel under a county plan. Many sites have yet to open.

September 05, 2004|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

After long stretches of sleeping in the backseat of a car and bunking on the couches of friends, the unassuming motel room with its two double beds, small refrigerator and air conditioner, seems almost like home for Laronda Smith and her daughter.

Smith, 35, and Amber, 12, last week checked into the Valley Inn, a two-story 45-room motel on a nondescript stretch of Valley Boulevard in La Puente, finally together after a year of homelessness spent mostly apart.

"I'm feeling a lot less stress right now," said Smith, plunked down on one bed while Amber stretched out on the other.

Smith and her daughter are among the first families to enter an emergency shelter program that is part of a countywide project designed to extend a winter shelter program so that it operates throughout the year. As they settled in on a hot afternoon, two other homeless families arrived, parched but happy. The program will include 15 families in two motels.

While officials cheered the arrivals, they also conceded that the $2.5-million county-funded initiative, kicked off with much fanfare in April, has struggled to get started. The motel check-ins were delayed for months, and shelters on the Westside, in Compton and in Long Beach have yet to open.

The only year-round program funded by the county that is fully operating is a 10-bed shelter run by Catholic Charities in Lancaster.

To date, about 75 of the planned 241 beds are occupied, officials said. Under the program, clients can get a place to sleep, receive meals and get supportive services for employment, education, mental health care, substance abuse treatment and permanent housing.

The city of Los Angeles is also funding year-round shelters, most of them in or near downtown, and has encountered fewer problems than the county.

The main stumbling block for the county program has been finding suitable locations close to social services but remote from both business and residential neighbors who might object. The nonprofit agencies that operate the shelters have run up against a Southern California truism: Decent property is expensive and hard to come by.

As a result, shelter spaces that were supposed to open months ago may not be occupied before winter, when the traditional cold-weather emergency program, running from Dec. 1 through March 15, resumes.

"I feel like I've been running up against a brick wall," said John Maceri, executive director of the Ocean Park Community Center, who for months has been searching the Westside for a place to put a 57-bed shelter.

Despite the help of real estate agents and state and local officials, Maceri said there have been few sites to even look at. Discussions with the Department of Veterans Affairs about using space on the grounds of its Westwood facility have proven fruitless so far, he said.

"We're never going to get ahead of the problem of homelessness unless we increase bed capacity," Maceri said. But on the other hand I don't have a magic wand and can't make property appear."

Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority officials said they too were frustrated at the delays, especially with the Westside.

"We don't give up hope at all but it's been a very difficult situation and a challenge on the Westside to house sizable numbers of homeless individuals," acknowledged Scott Milbourn, program manager for the homeless authority, which oversees the city and county shelter programs.

Dwight Radcliff, operations director for the group U.S. Vets which is supposed to manage a 55-bed shelter in Compton, said looking for a site has become "burdensome and cumbersome" even as the need for shelter has grown in the area. As a stopgap measure, officials were able to add 55 beds at a city-run summer shelter located near downtown to serve South Los Angeles' homeless, he said.

"I've watched as greater numbers of homeless people are being displaced from downtown by construction projects and loft buildings, and they're heading south," Radcliff said. "There is almost triple the number of homeless now in Ted Watkins Park but it's been hard to locate a facility where we can provide services."

The nonprofit Institute for Urban Research and Development is managing the shelter program in the San Gabriel Valley motels and a program at a 59-bed shelter in Long Beach. Executive Director Joseph Colletti said his group is in the midst of closing a deal to lease a commercial property for a Long Beach shelter and hopes to begin operating next month.

The motel program will include eight families at the Valley Inn and another seven at the Pomona Inn in El Monte.

Motel operators are charging a daily rate of about $46 per family and are adding telephone access, cable television and refrigerators. Families can stay in the rooms from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. each day. Case managers will be available in the evenings and in the mornings to help the families. Hot meals are provided in the evening and the institute posts a security guard, Smith said.

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