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Our shared affliction

The city and county committed millions this year to aid the homeless. But will the rest of us help?

December 25, 2006

FOR MORE THAN a decade, a national advocacy group for the homeless has held memorial services across the country on the first day of winter to commemorate those who died on the streets. Last week's service in San Julian Park at the gated heart of skid row drew Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who said the point isn't just to remember the homeless, it's also to "recognize the obligation, the responsibility we share for one another."

His admonition serves as a useful summary of the challenge posed by the estimated 88,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County. This past year, city and county officials finally remembered the homeless, allocating more than $150 million for housing and related aid programs. Nevertheless, it's not clear that the community at large has accepted its share of the responsibility for solving this problem.

Much of the attention in 2006 was focused on downtown's skid row, which for years has served as a literal dumping ground for the homeless. Conditions there remain appalling, though they improved slightly after the Police Department posted 50 additional officers to round up drug dealers and drive off criminals.

It's important to remember, though, that the denizens of skid row represent just a fraction of the county's homeless population. Recognizing this, county supervisors dedicated an unprecedented $100 million from the general fund to combat homelessness. The money will be used for such projects as a community court in Santa Monica to steer homeless people into treatment programs instead of jails. But to make a long-term dent in the problem, the region needs more affordable housing -- in particular, "supportive housing" that combines apartments with social services for the chronically homeless. About 40% of the county's homeless fall into that category.

Such facilities are costly. The city's commitment to spend $50 million on supportive housing will yield only about 300 units. The $1-billion housing bond issue that voters rejected in November would have financed a mere 10,000 affordable housing units. The upfront cost is daunting, despite the promise of long-term savings through reduced demands on hospitals, jails and other public services.

Yet coming up with the money may be the least difficult part of the puzzle. Outside of skid row, neighborhoods have fought to block housing and treatment sites for the homeless. Residents in Sylmar, Hollywood and North Hollywood are among those who've balked at the idea of having shelters or supportive housing units in their midst. This not-in-my-backyard mentality is spurred by the specter of skid row, but the intransigence only makes the problem worse. The problem isn't and can't be confined to downtown, especially with redevelopment there inevitably dispersing the homeless. It's an affliction for the entire county that will take years to solve.

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