L.A. County Called Homeless Disaster Area

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Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles County Grand Jury said Wednesday that the homeless problem has grown so large that national and state officials should declare the county a disaster area.

“The county cannot afford to deal with all of the problems of the homeless,” said Anne Brophy, the juror who chaired the panel’s six-month study of the issue. “We have become the capital of the homeless. We’ve heard of other communities putting them on buses (to Los Angeles).”

In a three-page letter sharply critical of the county’s response to the problem, the panel, acting in its capacity as government watchdog, called on the Board of Supervisors to immediately request that Gov. George Deukmejian and President Reagan take steps to mobilize emergency relief funds.


The recommendation, which Brophy said was partially intended to focus public attention on the issue, may not get far. State officials said the county’s estimated 25,000 to 50,000 homeless probably don’t constitute the kind of emergency that would qualify the area for disaster assistance.

“To the best of my knowledge, I don’t know of any precedent in this regard,” said Keith Harrison, a Los Angeles-based coordinator for the state Office of Emergency Services. “Usually disasters are specific acts. They are not part of an ongoing economic condition.”

And initial reaction from the supervisors, who have been sharply divided on how to attack the homeless problem, indicated that while the recommendation may trigger another heated discussion, it probably won’t get the necessary three votes.

Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich said the report “fails to recognize the complexity of this problem” and that the public and private agencies of the state and county “have the resources available to solve this problem.”

“I don’t think anything is accomplished by knee-jerk reactions that are not long-term solutions,” Supervisor Deane Dana said. “You don’t declare a major disaster area when you don’t really know the scope of the problem.”

But board Chairman Ed Edelman, who represents the Skid Row area, said the scope of the problem is clear. He cited federal statistics that show Los Angeles has more homeless than any other city in the nation. “It’s a human disaster of great proportions,” said Edelman, who requested county staff to prepare an analysis of the report for Tuesday’s meeting.


Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, who has often said the President should create emergency shelter by ordering Quonset huts built on federal lands, wants to try for a disaster declaration. “The effect on the victims is just as real as if they had lost their homes and belongings to a flood or fire,” Hahn said.

The grand jury argued that a disaster declaration is appropriate because the homeless problem is “a national problem and a national disgrace.” Federal and state policies and funding cutbacks have put hundreds of thousands of the nation’s mentally ill on the streets, the report says, and a disproportionate number have ended up in Los Angeles.