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Protests Force a New Search for Shelter Site

Supervisor Antonovich agrees to find another location after Castaic residents oppose a plan to house homeless in a jail parking lot.

October 29, 2005|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

For the second year in a row, opposition to a proposed winter shelter for the homeless has erupted in the Santa Clarita Valley, jeopardizing services as the nights begin to get colder.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority on Friday unanimously approved creating a winter shelter in a parking lot of the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic despite overwhelming opposition from community residents. Later, Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who represents the area, announced that he would work to find a location outside Castaic.

The events left officials scrambling to find new shelter beds in time for the start of the countywide winter shelter program, which runs from Dec. 1 to March 15, and once again exposed a bitter disagreement between supporters of homeless services and residents of the Santa Clarita Valley.

The controversy comes at a time when Los Angeles County is grappling with how to manage one of the largest homeless populations in the country -- an estimated 91,000 people -- and ensure that communities contribute their fair share.

Last year, Santa Clarita officials proposed busing homeless people to a Los Angeles armory rather than opening a winter shelter in the city. An agreement was eventually worked out to open the shelter in a county-owned flood-control maintenance yard within the city limits.

This year's proposal was to place a shelter that could hold up to 40 people in the visitors parking lot at the Pitchess jail, which officials said was more than three-quarters of a mile across the Golden State Freeway from the nearest homes.

But at two heated public meetings, residents -- some of whom said they were law enforcement officials -- said they feared an increase in crime and argued that most of the occupants would not be from Castaic but would be bused in instead.

Antonovich's office helped find the site but recently concluded that the community could not be won over.

"While we had many pluses for the location, we also had a very large minus in that the Town Council was opposed to it," Antonovich spokesman Tony Bell said. "Mike values the opinions of the Town Council and the community, and subsequently is moving forward with another plan."

Castaic Area Town Council President John Kunak, who opposed the shelter, applauded Antonovich's action.

"For the residents of Castaic, it's an outstanding result," said Kunak, who presided over the public meetings in which the shelter was rejected on a 4-3 vote. "We had 800 voices against this shelter and less than 10 in favor. The bottom line was the community was dead set against it."

But Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority Commissioner Ruth Schwartz asserted that fear-mongers had won out. "It's not a good sign, not just for this project, but for future projects in trying to address this problem," Schwartz said. "What I fear is that other communities will be emboldened to just scream loud and mischaracterize the population and will be able to chase these programs out."

Barbara Preheim, operations director for the Santa Clarita Community Development Corp., which would operate the shelter under a contract with the homeless authority, said the group would search for a new location from scratch.

"Hopefully, we'll make a lot more people happy," Preheim said. "It's a disappointment we can't go forward now.... It's already getting cold, and we've had a couple of cold rains."

Castaic -- about eight miles northwest of Santa Clarita -- is an unincorporated community of about 22,000. With its own school district, parks and lake, it traditionally has seen itself as separate from the rest of Santa Clarita Valley, said Town Council member Bob Lewis, who supported the shelter.

Lewis said the town was willing to take care of its own, but he decried the negative aspects of such insularity.

"I would have liked to have heard from the churches, either in Castaic or Santa Clarita, and what they are doing to support homeless services," he said. "They may be doing many things, but I think it's a shame people's fears triumph their compassion."

Lewis said he was struck by the stereotyped view of the homeless represented by residents at the town meetings.

"They equated the face of the homeless to some of the worst type of behavior you might see in downtown Los Angeles: sex offenders, drug addicts, burglars," Lewis said. "When you take a look at the demographics provided by [the homeless authority], that's not what we have in our area. But those fears were fueled by people attending the meetings, particularly by law enforcement officers, who were the most vocal and stated that everyone was going to have pedophiles and drug addicts breaking into your backyards."

Sheriff Lee Baca, who has championed homeless causes, said it would be wrong for his deputies to identify themselves as such during hearings.

Larry Adamson, a homeless authority commissioner who lives in Santa Clarita and attended the meetings, said one speaker identified herself as a sheriff's deputy and referred to the homeless as garbage.

"We shouldn't be rewarding this community for the behavior they showed that night," said Adamson, executive director of the Midnight Mission in downtown Los Angeles. "Doing nothing is not an alternative."

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