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Homeless Drift in Hollywood's Rising Tide

Agencies assist the down and out, but critics fear their efforts will stall the area's renaissance.

January 27, 2006|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

The brawl started on the Hollywood Boulevard sidewalk and ended in a busy car dealership's service bay.

A quarrel among young runaways who hang out near the eastern end of the Hollywood Walk of Fame escalated into a fistfight that spilled into Toyota of Hollywood, sending customers and mechanics scrambling out of the way.

The altercation late one recent morning resulted in relatively minor injuries. But it was another punch in the stomach to those who worry their Hollywood neighborhood is becoming overrun by the homeless just as the once-glitzy district is finally in the midst of a renaissance.

Some 20 drop-in centers, shelters, homeless feeding programs and health clinics already dot the area around Hollywood Boulevard and Gower Street. And the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency has just purchased three lots steps from the intersection and announced plans to construct up to 60 residences and a companion social services program catering to the homeless.

Backers argue that the project will be good for Hollywood because it will take homeless people off the street and put them into long-term housing.

But a growing number of critics fear it will lure more street people into the area, potentially jeopardizing Hollywood's fledgling revitalization that has nightclubs, high-end hotels and trendy restaurants popping up.

The proposed $20-million homeless project would rise just blocks from what civic leaders are hoping will be a cornerstone of Hollywood's rebirth. There, at Hollywood and Vine, an ambitious retail and residential development includes conversion of the old Broadway department store into lofts and construction of a luxury 300-room W Hotel and an accompanying 150-unit residential complex. They will be around the corner from such hot spots as the ArcLight theater complex, Amoeba Records and the Sunset/Vine retail center.

"It's ironic that while we're on the verge of creating a vibrant new Hollywood, we're at the same time creating a potential Hollywood skid row," said Fran Reichenbach, founder of the Beachwood Canyon Neighborhood Assn.

The clash illustrates the looming problem officials face as they make a new push to deal with the homeless problem citywide. As part of the campaign, a delegation that includes several City Council members and business leaders was in New York this week to examine how that city has dealt with its homeless problem.

Much of the focus has been in downtown's skid row, where a boom in luxury loft and condo development is bringing middle-class residents into an area that a recent census found to have 3,668 people living on the street or in shelters.

Downtown's gentrification has led to talk of decentralizing the many homeless services that are available in skid row. But the nervousness around Hollywood and Gower suggests that finding willing neighborhoods to take these services will prove difficult.

Hollywood's estimated 2,100 homeless are different from downtown's. Many are young runaways, most are white, and their time on the street can often be measured in months, not years. In contrast, skid row's are older, mostly black and chronically homeless because of mental illness or substance abuse.

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The Hollywood homeless dispute began within the quiet confines of one of the community's oldest and staidest institutions: Gower Street's landmark, 102-year-old First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood.

Financial problems that led to the resignation late last year of its two top pastors forced the church to sell three Gower Street parcels to the redevelopment agency for $5.8 million.

To win the church property, redevelopment officials had to outmaneuver private developers Adolfo Suaya and David Maman, key figures in the burgeoning Hollywood restaurant scene, whose deal with the church was already in escrow.

The agency ended up paying legal costs incurred by both the church and the developers in exchange for the developers backing out of their purchase.

Redevelopment officials insist their project will benefit the community and that residents will have ample time to weigh in.

"We're looking for a team to build it, provide social services there on a long-term basis, to manage it and bring outreach to the community," said John McCoy, senior finance officer for the agency's Hollywood office. Various forms of governmental funding will be sought to cover the estimated $10-million to $15-million construction cost. The finished units will be used for long-term housing, not as a temporary shelter.

Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti, who represents the Hollywood area, supports the project and notes that it was undertaken only after a local group -- an interfaith church organization -- asked that something be done to address Hollywood's homeless problem.

"We are opposed to turning more people out on the streets of Hollywood," he said. "If we're serious about cleaning up our streets, we have to be serious about permanent housing and supportive services for the homeless."

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