Clean skid row's streets, but then house the homeless

Scouring skid row's filthy streets is important but it won't clean up L.A.'s homeless problem

The organizers of Operation Healthy Streets, a newly revamped version of an existing Los Angeles city program, vow that filthy skid row streets will be scoured every other month (and spot-cleaned in between) and that city and county outreach workers will be dispatched on a more regular basis to help some of the estimated 3,400 homeless people who sleep in that 50-block area on a typical night. Some advocates see this as little more than a ruse to dislodge the homeless and discourage them from returning to the downtown area, which is rapidly gentrifying. City and county officials need to prove them wrong.

There are certainly services, even basic necessities, that homeless people could use more of immediately — specifically, bathroom access and storage facilities — and Operation Healthy Streets, which officially started last Wednesday, is supposed to work on that as well. The county and the LAPD insist that this is the beginning of a much more intensive and better-coordinated effort to provide homeless people with mental health services, to enroll them in Medicaid, and to ensure they get medical attention. Last week, there were doctors among the outreach workers. Lt. Billy Brockway, who heads the Police Department's Safer Cities Initiative Task Force, says the issue is less about the number of service providers and more about making connections between those providers and the people who need them most. It's not, he says, about trying to push people out.

If that's the case, it's a good start. But ultimately, social services must lead to housing. Clean sidewalks are great and bathrooms are essential, but getting the homeless off the streets is what everyone wants. And not simply by making them disappear with no concern for what happens to them next. The longer-term goal is to get them into the kind of permanent supportive housing that can provide the on-site social services — mental health, substance abuse, job counseling — that so many of them need.

The county's Department of Health Services aims to have 10,000 new units of subsidized housing (with services) available over the next five years. About 380 of them are already in place and a total of 1,000 should be ready by the end of this year. That's just one source of housing. Thousands more units are in the pipeline. Currently, the United Way estimates that 14,000 units of permanent supportive housing exist in the county of L.A.

That's the right approach. But more needs to be built.

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