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L.A. County OKs `Historic' Homeless Plan

The $100-million effort includes a controversial proposal to move some services for transients from downtown to suburban areas.

April 05, 2006|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

Signaling a major shift in its homeless policy, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a $100-million plan Tuesday to reduce the concentration of homeless services in skid row by establishing five centers across the county that would provide temporary shelter and social services for transients.

The sweeping county plan coincides with a major push by city and state officials to tackle crime and blight in the downtown district, which for decades has had one of the nation's largest concentrations of homeless people.

Although some community activists have expressed concern about moving shelters into suburban neighborhoods, supervisors said this was a rare opportunity for the county to make a bold move forward.

"It ought to be recognized for what it is: an absolutely historic investment by the county of Los Angeles," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. "We've got some momentum politically to do something about this, we've got some money to attach to that political momentum, and it may be an opportunity that will not pass our way again in our political lifetimes."

The board approved the plan 4-1, with only Supervisor Mike Antonovich dissenting because of concerns over costs and the potential for spreading the problem of homelessness.

In an attempt to address the concerns of critics, Supervisor Don Knabe proposed amending the plan to essentially give cities veto power over establishment of local homeless centers. But the board rejected his idea, fearing it would stymie the effort.

Some of the region's top political leaders, including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, have vowed in the last several months to make improving skid row a top priority. Recent publicity about the area's blight has coincided with rapid gentrification, which is bringing thousands of upscale residents into nearby areas.

The political shift has coincided with a rare rosy moment in the county's finances. The area's hot real estate market has provided an unexpected windfall of property tax revenues, and the county plans to use some of that money to help the homeless.

Over the last year, several supervisors have suggested separate plans to aid homeless people. The idea of a concerted push gained steam in January, when county officials toured New York's Times Square. The fabled district, once plagued with problems relating to homelessness, is now cited as a model for urban renewal, with its chain stores and throngs of tourists.

The officials left New York feeling that even relatively modest investments in services for the homeless -- such as setting up regional shelters and encouraging service agencies to cooperate -- could have a profound effect.

One "regional stabilization center" is to be located in each of the five supervisorial districts, possibly on properties already owned by the county. The sites are to be chosen in the coming months.

The thinking is that when authorities pick up homeless people with mental illness or substance abuse problems, they could take them to these centers to get shelter and access to services instead of booking them into jails.

The centers also would be temporary destinations for people released from jails and hospitals who have no other place to go. Now, the vast majority of homeless people are sent to skid row, where services for them are concentrated.

In addition, the county will establish a special court to allow transients with outstanding warrants for misdemeanor quality-of-life crimes to have warrants resolved after completing mental health or narcotics recovery programs.

The plan calls for a dedicated center for homeless families, located downtown but designed to move people quickly out of the area and into long-term housing throughout the region. It also calls for programs aimed at providing immediate access to social services, benefits and housing for people who would otherwise be homeless upon discharge from county hospitals and correctional facilities.

The regional centers have been the most controversial part of the program, but the vast majority of the money -- $80 million -- would fund countywide homeless and housing programs, build additional emergency and long-term shelters, subsidize rents and finance related programs. Although officials acknowledge the money will not solve the homeless problem, they say it is the biggest investment of the kind the county has ever made.

The county's chief administrative officer, David Janssen, said that the plan was a year in development and stemmed from ideas from all five supervisors.

The plan also coincides with reports that homeless people are "dumped" downtown and a study that put the county's homeless population at 88,000.

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