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Homing in on a solution

October 11, 2005

WITH LOS ANGELES COUNTY about to receive nearly $300 million in funding to help the mentally ill, it has no more excuse for using downtown's skid row as a one-stop dumping ground for the ill and addicted. History, however, offers precious little encouragement that it will halt the practice.

Skid row, just east of the downtown financial district, was virtually written off not long ago. Isolated efforts at revival in the 1980s and early '90s, such as the acclaimed but doomed L.A. Theater Center on Spring Street, died of their patrons' fright over the neighborhood. Government officials mostly looked the other way; the concentration of need and crime in a few filthy square blocks might have represented a humanitarian disaster, but at least the problem was "contained" to one area.

Now the housing market is doing what government revival efforts couldn't. With high-priced dwellings sprouting in the distinguished old buildings near skid row, a widely ignored problem has become an urgent crisis. The "dumping" of the homeless downtown by outside agencies now attracts far more attention than it used to.

Blame is easy to assign. Efforts to move the mentally ill and addicted off the streets are mired in a lack of funding, imagination and cooperation among county, city and private nonprofit entities. The city-county coordinator and funding agency, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, has "imploded" -- Councilman Eric Garcetti's word -- in a financial mess that has left nonprofit agencies scrambling to meet their payrolls. County Sheriff Lee Baca, whose jails the city police keep filling, champions housing and service options, while Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton seeks arrests on skid row, calling the area a "national disgrace."

It is a disgrace. But the situation is not without hope.

At least two members of the City Council, Garcetti (whose district includes the seediest parts of Hollywood) and Jan Perry (whose district includes skid row) are committed to more than lip service in dealing with those who are on the streets or at imminent risk of ending up there. They have aggressively sought good sites and competent providers for shelter and services. Useful models include Hollywood's nonprofit People Assisting the Homeless, which provides a one-stop service center that helps people obtain healthcare and government services, such as Social Security benefits. Part of the organization's success, however, is that it is not on skid row. It can offer counsel independent of the sometimes ill-run shelters and the grim, disease-ridden street culture.

Los Angeles County has put together a required plan for how it would spend its $280 million over three years from Proposition 63, which imposes a "millionaire tax" to benefit mental illness treatment and prevention. (A single-use tax is a poor way to fund services, but the money still should be spent wisely.) Whether that plan, scheduled for a vote by supervisors today, translates into progress depends foremost on the county finding better ways to work with the city of Los Angeles, where most of the county's homeless problems are concentrated. And the city needs to show that it is prepared to address the homeless issue in a systematic way.

Aside from Perry and Garcetti, members of the City Council need to be more engaged on the issue and willing to allow clinics, housing and services in their districts. Too many worthwhile plans have died of NIMBY-ism because of council members' veto powers in their districts.

The county's Proposition 63 plan should give supervisors and the City Council a framework for action and the political cover to shed their timidity. If they aggressively pursue solutions, the misery of the worst parts of skid row will no longer rest on their consciences.

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