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Our city, our duty

March 05, 2006

THERE ARE ENOUGH HOMELESS people in Los Angeles to fill the Kodak Theatre, home of tonight's Academy Awards ceremony, 26 times over. For one night, Los Angeles is the capital of glamour and style, but it is the capital of homelessness every day of the year.

This city's 88,000 homeless men, women and children live under freeways, in cars or, if they're truly unlucky, in urine-stained cardboard boxes on the sidewalks. Like the rest of the city, they are a varied lot: eminently reasonable and mentally ill; victims of circumstances and their own worst enemy; eager to work and virtually unemployable. What unites them is the sad reality that they have no place to live. And the unavoidable truth is that, for too long, too many of us have been too willing to tolerate conditions in Los Angeles that are an embarrassment not just to one of the world's richest nations but to simple common decency.

That may be about to change. Thanks in part to Times columnist Steve Lopez's series of articles about the issue, a consensus has emerged among politicians, public officials and the public itself: Los Angeles must do something about homelessness. But this moment of opportunity will be squandered unless we attack the problem intelligently.

Worst in the nation

Over the last decade, many major U.S. cities have begun to slowly reduce their homeless populations. Los Angeles, however, is in paralysis.

The city and county governments are engaged in bitter and petty battles. Leaders routinely promise change, then do nothing as soon as the cameras disappear. Too little money is spent, and even that has never been adequately examined or audited. And most of our wealthy communities have pushed their homeless out, forcing them into refugee-like ghettos such as skid row -- a violent, drug-infested 50-block radius in downtown Los Angeles.

It does not have to be this way. Better solutions are out there. For Angelenos and our leaders, how we take on this issue will say as much about us as a city as it does about the people we allow to sleep on our streets.

And who are they? They are people such as 41-year-old Jeanette Aldan and her four children, living in a 50-bed shelter for homeless families in Koreatown. The family arrived a month ago after being evicted because they couldn't pay their rent. At first, local shelters were booked, so for three weeks they slept in their car, with the windows rolled up for safety. Aldan drives her children (ages 17, 15, 14 and 10) to school each morning and works as an assistant in a community center for the disabled. She knows that she can't stay at the shelter indefinitely and that the family could soon be back on the street.

Then there is Howard Young, who has lived -- if it can be called that -- on skid row for nearly a quarter of a century. Young, a 48-year-old former Army mechanic, suffers from bipolar disorder, which he says fueled a cocaine addiction. Like thousands of his neighbors, he has cycled through mental health treatment, drug counseling programs and prison. And he always ends up back on skid row.

If there is good news, it is that a few leaders recently have begun showing modest interest in the homeless. In October, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa promised $50 million in new money for service-enriched housing for the chronically homeless. The county Board of Supervisors promised $24.6 million for homeless services last summer -- although it's still researching how to spend it.

What can be done

But Los Angeles has seen this kind of budding momentum before, and nothing has come of it. The question is whether this time is different. To help ensure that it is, here are some broad but attainable goals:

Build more low-income and homeless housing. California's real estate boom has been harshest on those at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. Like a cruel game of musical chairs, those who could barely make the rent a few years ago can now no longer afford decent housing. Since the federal government began scaling back its low-income housing programs two decades ago, Los Angeles hasn't picked up the slack. That has left Los Angeles with a bigger affordable-housing gap than almost any major city in the United States.

Reform the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. In 1993, the city and county created the agency to oversee their local homeless contracts. It has been an unqualified failure. Financial problems have been so bad that it has scrambled to meet bills and payrolls. And the agency has never adequately explained how it has spent hundreds of millions of dollars or sufficiently evaluated the programs that get money. The agency's 10-member board has no real power: One member is selected by each county supervisor; the other five by the mayor. The setup allows both city and county officials to hide from accountability.

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