Plan offers new hope for housing the homeless

One man was curled up at the entrance to a restaurant, asleep, passed out or dead.

It wasn't immediately clear.

Three other people — two men and a woman — were in just as sad a state near 3rd and Fairfax. One, named John, sat on the sidewalk and appeared to be pretty well tanked. The other guy, Michael, said he'd just been in the hospital for a head injury.

From what? I asked.

"A baseball bat," Michael said. "And my liver is shot."

His friend Ann was crying, tears streaking a raw, sun-beaten face. She dropped her pants as if ready to do her business in the planter box outside the restaurant, but her friend told her to hold it.

"I'm very sad," she said. "I don't need to go to the bathroom. I'm just depressed."

Nearby, an elderly woman held a sign that said "Homeless Lives Matter."

Across the street, a man named Al sat in a wheelchair. He said he'd been disabled for 26 years and homeless for nine weeks "this time." Another gent, dirt-crusted and addled, stepped in front of traffic and was nearly hit by a car.

Postcards from the dark side, midafternoon on an L.A. Monday, with views of hot property in the Hollywood Hills. A Citibank billboard says you can power bank while you power run. And a modern day Tortilla Flats encroaches on an upscale cantina.

You can easily find dozens of sprawling encampments and smaller clusters of street-dwellers all over this city whose elected officials have been saying for years — as have county officials — that it's time to do something.

In 2006, it was Bring Los Angeles Home, which promised to end homelessness in 10 years. Backers included then-councilman and current Mayor Eric Garcetti, who now says he's working on a plan after assuring us this year that he already had a plan. Also in 2006, L.A. County officials launched the Homeless Prevention Initiative.

Those plans were actually full of good strategies, and modest success followed. But there wasn't much follow-through, and the impact of that failure is visible everywhere.

"Skid row is worse than it's been in 30 years," says Mollie Lowery, a pioneering service provider.

On Tuesday morning I walked one block of San Pedro Street, between 5th and 6th, and counted 31 tents. It's a campground for the poor, the mentally and physically sick, and the addicted — a human catastrophe situated just a short walk from the halls of L.A. power.

Lowery gets agitated when she hears public officials talking, as they are now, about emergency declarations and the need for battle plans.

"We know the solutions. We have a plan," she said.

It was all laid out in the 2006 strategies, with emphasis on outreach, housing and rehabilitative services. All that was missing, as Lowery sees it, was the political and moral will to make it happen.

And many people are sicker now as a result, said Lowery, an administrator at Housing Works, a nonprofit that moves chronically ill poor people into apartments and helps them manage their lives. So far in 2015, she said, six of the agency's clients have died from the ravaging effects of years on the street.

A lot of homeless folks resist help, a homeless man named William told me as he took down his tent on a sidewalk on Willoughby Avenue, just west of La Brea.

"But they don't mean it," he said. "What people need to understand is that a lot of them have mental health problems."

William said he was off his prescription meds and using street drugs, and he'd much rather be indoors but doesn't see it happening any time soon. Years ago, he said, caregivers used to come by and try to lure you inside, but there isn't as much of that anymore.

That kind of intervention is essential, and I know that from experience. It took a year to reel in my friend Nathaniel Ayers, who refused help until he believed he could trust me and others who were trying to help him.

Intervention doesn't do much good, though, when there's not nearly enough shelter.

That could change. Former state Sen. Darrell Steinberg checked in with me Monday to say he's promoting a plan to create $2-billion worth of supportive housing in California without a nickel in new taxes.

Steinberg was the primary force behind the 2004 Mental Health Services Act that taxed the state's highest earners, with incomes of more than $1 million annually, for services that have aided thousands of Californians. If you dedicate $130 million a year from that fund, said Steinberg, you could finance a $2-billion revenue bond for housing, and possibly double or triple that with the usual leveraging.

"It would be the single largest investment to combat the plight of the mentally ill homeless ever," said Steinberg, who has begun explaining the plan to state and county officials.

If more people had somewhere to go, and a chance to get healthier, you'd have fewer scenes like the one I watched play out at 3rd and Fairfax.

Evelyn Sandino, manager of the restaurant Mercado, was ready to open for business, but she had a problem.

John, Michael and Ann were using the entrance as a campground.

Sandino politely asked them to leave, and they rousted the friend who was fast asleep. They grumbled and left a mess behind.

Sandino said homelessness is an even bigger impediment to business at Mercado's sister restaurant near skid row. There, she said, there are more homeless people with nowhere to go. They're sicker, too, and it's harder to get them to leave.

In June, I moderated a discussion on homelessness. Panelist John Maceri, who heads the Ocean Park Community Center and Lamp Community, said it was shameful that society has devolved to the point where such dystopian conditions are the norm.

"What does that say about us … that in the richest country in the world, where we have enormous capacity for innovation … we have massive encampments on our streets and let senior citizens, veterans and people who are gravely disabled … fend for themselves?"

"Enough is enough," Maceri said. "This is not an acceptable way in a civilized society for people to live."

steve.lopez@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATstevelopez 

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
54°