Column

No excuse for L.A.'s surging homeless population

Every council member and county supervisor needs to find a homeless person and sponsor them

You see them behind bushes and in parks, in ragged tents and beat-up vans, on beaches and along arroyos, under bridges, in alleys and on sidewalks.

It's mostly men but you will find more than a few women and even some children. The number of people without a place to live has grown by 12% in riches-and-rags Los Angeles County in the last two years, to nearly 45,000, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority's biennial report.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said it was time to increase affordable housing and supportive housing.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said the city had to do more on many fronts, including homeless prevention.

"Ending homelessness is one of my top priorities as mayor," said Garcetti.

That's a nice little sound bite, but we have heard it all before. And the homeless count went up, not down.

Enough is enough.

I'd like to see someone step up and take charge. And here's the speech I'd like to hear shouted from the podium by the mayor or any of our so-called leaders:

I could stand here and boast about a few areas of limited progress.

I could point a finger at the feds for cutting off the spigot on funding.

But the truth is, there's no excuse for having a homeless throng that roughly equals the total populations of Calabasas and South Pasadena, here in the land of yachts and multimillion-dollar tear-downs.

It's as if a tsunami crashed ashore from Seal Beach to Pacific Palisades forcing thousands of our neighbors to live on our streets.

Some of these people are so sick they are dying as we walk past them.

And all we know how to do is shoo them, cite them and arrest them.

It's been almost half a century since we shut the mental hospitals.

Is that not enough time to figure out how to take care of the weakest and meekest among us?

Whenever a report like this comes out, you hear politicians like me make vows to redouble efforts and blah-blah-blah.

So let me be honest about that. It's just something we say, because we know we are never going to end homelessness at the rate we are going, and we know you are probably not going to challenge us for pretending otherwise.

Why the doublespeak?

Homeless people don't vote, for one thing, and a lot of people don't give a hoot about them, for another. They're bums, they're dirty, they're scary, they're someone else's problem.

Yeah, there are some bums out there, some addicts and predators too. But mostly what you will find are combat-rattled veterans, as well as people whose brain chemistry went haywire, and people who lost a job or fell behind and couldn't catch up.

I once met a guy who drank himself onto skid row and, when I asked why, he told me about a family outing that began splendidly and ended horrifically. He was distracted for only a few moments, he said — just long enough for his young daughter to drown in a lake, sentencing him to a lifetime of guilt and regret. So he curled up on skid row and tried to disappear into a bottle.

Almost 10 years ago, a gaggle of earnest politicians gathered on skid row and promised to end homelessness in a decade and you can see how that worked out.

The plan was to build five regional homeless service centers in the county, and not a single one was ever built, because nobody wanted to have to deal with it.

If you ask me, every neighborhood ought to take care of its own rather than foist them off on downtown Los Angeles' open-air asylum or one of the tent cities that are popping up everywhere.

Now here's my call to action:

Every council member and county supervisor needs to find a homeless person (it won't be hard), and sponsor them. By that I mean they should establish a relationship, find out what went wrong and take on the system until the person has a place to live and a survival plan. In their own district.

What the politicians will find is that no two cases are alike, and that resisting assistance doesn't mean the person doesn't really want it.

Fear, confusion, lack of trust — that's all part of the condition.

Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer was just telling me about a program he's started in downtown in which people who get tickets — most of them homeless — can have them dismissed if they take advantage of services that can help push them into recovery.

We need more of that kind of thinking and much more creativity.

Lots more.

Every council district has open space and vacant buildings, so why can't we find ways to put those assets to work?

And as for all those developers who bankroll our campaigns and then line up for favors in return?

Guess what: We need a favor now. You and your buddies in banking don't appear to be hurting here in the capital of haves and have-nots. So we're going to put you to work with government and nonprofits to finance and build more affordable and supportive housing.

For every project we politicians rubber stamp, we will require that developers set aside more units for middle- and low-income residents. And I want Sacramento to let cities establish true rent control, so gentrification and rising real estate prices don't drive more people into tent cities along our streets and river banks.

I'll admit it — I don't have a clue how to build a new economy of living wage jobs, so the least I can do is deliver more affordable housing.

And another thing: I want to send a message to President Obama and Hillary Clinton and all the presidential wannabes who wing into town so Hollywood high-rollers can throw money at them.

If they want our money, we are going to demand a return on the investment.

And if it isn't too much trouble, as they pinball between Bel-Air and Beverly Hills on their cash hauls, could they at least take a drive-by look at our huddled, teeming masses and send a little help?

This is a travesty. Forty-five thousand homeless people have become such a familiar part of the landscape that we barely notice them and we have lost our sense of shame.

Let's get it back.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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