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W. Covina Resists Idea of Regional Homeless Center

A county bid to clean up skid row by moving services for the needy to the suburbs gets flak in one city that fears its downtown renewal will suffer.

April 07, 2006|Cynthia H. Cho and Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

Downtown West Covina is a classic picture of a certain sort of Southern California revitalization.

In a district that was once a shabby collection of commercial businesses, there are new stuccoed buildings with splashy signs, proclaiming a host of chain stores and restaurants, with names like Applebee's, Quiznos, Best Buy and T-Mobile.

But now, Los Angeles County is considering adding something that West Covina officials say doesn't fit the urban revitalization plan. County officials are looking at a small homeless service center in the area as a possible site for building one of five large homeless stabilization facilities to reduce the concentration of the homeless in downtown L.A.'s skid row.

West Covina officials and some residents say their town has its share of homeless people. And although many think the city needs to do more to help them, the prospect of establishing a regional shelter there doesn't sit well.

Why ruin their downtown, residents say, so that downtown L.A. can improve?

"You should get one of the high-rises in L.A. and help people," suggested Jorge Morfin, a commercial painter and two-year West Covina resident. He described the homeless as "eyesores."

"We are not ready to have more of them," he said.

The reactions in this San Gabriel Valley city of about 111,000 offer a reality check of sorts for county leaders who want to move homeless services out of downtown Los Angeles and into the suburbs.

"This area here, they're building it up," said Roxanne Sanchez, a secretary at the Bank of the West branch next door to the homeless center. "They're trying to make it appealing to West Covina residents, and I don't think this will help."

Sanchez, who has worked at the bank for 25 years, said she is already bothered by homeless people who sometimes sleep in the bank parking lot and on its doorstep. She worries that having more homeless people nearby might prevent customers from coming to the bank.

"I'm sorry for them, but not this close to a business," she said. "We have a business to run here."

The West Covina Access Center is among 14 homeless drop-in centers that the county is considering for conversion into full-service shelters open around the clock. The center is in a two-story commercial building that also houses a dentist's office and a real estate agency at the border between the city's commercial and residential areas.

Workers say they provide referral services for healthcare, employment and housing to about five to 10 homeless people a day. Nearly half of those who come for service are families.

The county plan calls for each of the stabilization centers to have 30 to 40 shelter beds, along with support services, and serve as a destination point for homeless people who are leaving County Jail or hospitals, or who are taken to the center by law enforcement officials as an alternative to jail.

West Covina residents interviewed Thursday said they support helping the homeless more. But they expressed concern about that help occurring in their city -- particularly in a downtown area they have worked so hard to revitalize.

Leaving the Starbucks at The Lakes shopping center, a few blocks from the drop-in center, Christy Wright said she has family members who live nearby.

"Realizing that homeless shelters are needed, I am not against having them," she said. "But I'm not pleased with the location."

Many in West Covina said that the building's small size -- 7,500 square feet for six commercial units -- might prove problematic.

Also, all of the offices are occupied and the building's owner said he has no plans to sell.

Others in the city say they don't want to shoulder the burden for what they perceive to be someone else's problem.

Mayor Steve Herfert complained that the county had not consulted with him before issuing its 47-page plan, which included building the stabilization centers as part of a $100-million effort to combat homelessness.

"It's unfortunate that they don't consult the cities at all. There have been no discussions about this site becoming a site for the county," he said.

The county is also looking at drop-in centers in Glendale, Pasadena, Santa Monica, Venice, North Hollywood and other communities.

And West Covina is not the only community girding for battle.

Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl said his phone had been "ringing off the hook" after he suggested in The Times that "it would be great if we could locate one that would work for the Westside."

Rosendahl, who said that each community should take on its fair share of the problem, said most were calls from constituents fearing what having a homeless shelter nearby would do to their neighborhoods.

Rosendahl spoke after a news conference Thursday unveiling a blue-ribbon plan to end homelessness in Los Angeles,

The 115-page plan -- drafted by the committee known as "Bring L.A. Home!" -- makes 200 suggestions for how the region can end homelessness within a decade.

Chief among those recommendations is a call to build 50,000 units of affordable housing with nearby social services. That alone could cost as much as $12 billion, according to the report.

But officials were quick to point out that no money has been identified for that and other suggestions made in the report.

The report comes as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and state legislators have vowed to make fixing skid row a priority. The shift came after The Times ran a series highlighting the district's problems.

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