Numbers Growing : Homeless--Left Behind by Recovery

Times Staff Writer

First of two articles.

Every weekday afternoon, when his classes at Sierra College of Business end, Walter Bannister takes off alone on a survival mission.

He slips away from the other students who are studying to be medical assistants and hurries across downtown Los Angeles to the Midnight Mission on Skid Row. If he makes it in time, Bannister lines up with hundreds of other men to pick up a ticket that allows him to go back three hours later and eat his only meal of the day.

Bannister, 24, sleeps most nights on a sandy children's playground off 6th Street, huddled near fires with two dozen other men and women. His only clothes are three shirts, two pairs of pants, cowboy boots and his white medical assistant's uniform.

Despite an economic recovery that has added 7 million jobs and cheered the outlook of most Americans, government efforts to help the homeless are failing to remove the Walter Bannisters from the streets of Los Angeles and most other cities.

Instead, their numbers seem to be growing, posing one of the most stubborn and potentially expensive social problems of the 1980s.

"It's not a media event," said Jim Pursley, who administers a federal food and shelter program for the United Way in Los Angeles. "It's a real problem."

Breakdowns in the nation's mental health care system, combined with the failure of the economic recovery to reach the bottom levels of American cities, have helped create what many recent studies say is a severely troubled underclass of people who live alongside the traditional winos and derelicts on the streets and in shelters and seedy hotels.

Half May Be Mentally Ill

Perhaps half of the homeless are mentally ill, according to recent studies, and fewer than half are able to obtain public assistance. For many, the welfare system is too confusing and the rules ineffective.

Reagan Administration cuts in social service programs, including low-cost housing construction and job training, are blamed by many local officials across the country for aggravating the problem. The further cuts in aid to cities proposed in the 1985-86 budget will do more damage, many big-city mayors contend.

Federal and local efforts to provide additional shelter have fallen far short of expectations. Gov. George Deukmejian has provided no money for shelters in his budgets. His New York colleague, Gov. Mario Cuomo, recently announced a $192-million budget for a package of measures to help shelter and serve the homeless.

Bannister, who moved to Los Angeles when he was discharged from the Army, displays no history of mental illness and said he does not use drugs or alcohol. His experiences provide a glimpse into the homeless world.

Although he is a high school graduate, he said he has been unable to find regular work. Unlike many with whom he walks on the streets, his speech is steady and his thoughts clear. But he said no one will hire a smelly, disillusioned man with no address or phone.

Bannister recently discovered the complexity of the welfare system, which several studies say contributes to the misery of the homeless. His $228-a-month county relief grant was cut off last year, when a clerk reported that he was late for an appointment at the welfare office. His case was investigated and the termination was upheld.

So Bannister has been without any income except what he has collected by selling his blood and doing occasional odd jobs. Veterans' benefits and a federal Pell grant pay his tuition. Unable to afford the seedy hotels near his school downtown, he has been in and out of the missions and shelters. He, like others, finds that the 2,000 free shelter beds scattered around Los Angeles County are filled most nights.

Last week, a Legal Aid Foundation lawyer who had been looking into the case discovered that the county did not have legal grounds for cutting off Bannister's checks. His benefits will soon resume, but that income will not be enough to let him escape homelessness.

The homeless like Bannister present a paradox that government officials have been unable to unravel.

The unemployment rate has fallen to its lowest level in several years, and most people are optimistic about the future. But few of the new jobs created are the kind that can be filled by unskilled residents of the nation's urban centers.

Six million people have slipped into poverty since President Reagan took office, the U.S. Census Bureau says. Thirty-five million people live in poverty, and the official poverty rate--15.2%--is the highest in two decades.

At the same time, studies by the Congressional Budget Office and the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington say the amount of assistance going to low-income Americans--especially those at the very bottom--has declined.

'Poverty Problem'

"We do not have a shelter problem in this country," St. Paul Mayor George Latimer, past president of the National League of Cities, said at a meeting last month of the U.S. Conference of Mayors' homeless task force. "We do not have a hunger problem. We have a poverty problem."

Local officials around the country also blame Reagan Administration policies that have reduced the welfare rolls and eliminated most low-cost housing programs. Cities are falling further behind in their ability to provide basic survival services to the street people, the Conference of Mayors task force found last year.

"I think people would be flat-out shocked to see how bad it is in my city and absolutely horrified to see how pervasive it is in the larger cities," said Mayor Ted Wilson of Salt Lake City.

Recent studies by a variety of groups--including the National Governor's Assn. and the American Psychiatric Assn.--say the homeless represent a severely troubled slice of society that will not be able to heal itself without intensive help.

For every bag lady or young Vietnam veteran who simply lies down in plain view of evening commuters, there are others like Bannister--including some families--who hole up behind a fence or in an alley downtown or who seek refuge in yards and freeway shrubbery in West Los Angeles, Pasadena and most other suburbs.

Perhaps half need intensive medical help and counseling to become stabilized and to regain their footing in society, according to several recent studies.

Steep reductions in admissions to state mental hospitals and the failure by the federal government and the states to support local care centers for the mentally ill have caught up with officials, and the homeless are paying the price, the American Psychiatric Assn. reported last year in a book-length study of the problem in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and other cities.

Nationally, a comprehensive system of care is needed, with an emphasis on meeting the basic needs of the homeless for food, shelter and clothing along with psychiatric care, the association said.

Homelessness among the mentally ill, the report said, has reached "unprecedented magnitude and complexity. . . . Hardly a section of the country, urban or rural, has escaped the ubiquitous presence of ragged, ill and hallucinating human beings, wandering through our city streets, huddled in alleyways or sleeping over vents."

No Area Unaffected

Even the glittering Restaurant Row in Beverly Hills does not escape.

A pile of rubbish on a vacant lot on La Cienega Boulevard proves, on closer inspection, to be a cardboard shanty housing an old man who rambles about his past with Gen. George Patton, the legendary World War II Army commander. Attendants at a YMCA Christmas tree lot during the last holiday season said they have seen the man there for three winters.

Forty miles away, in the Ventura County suburb of Simi Valley, volunteers who drove around looking for homeless on a February weekend discovered several dozen people living in parks and under bushes.

"You get to where you can pick them out," said Jeff Morris, chairman of the newly formed Simi Valley Christian Foundation for the Homeless. "It blew me away. There's one guy who's been living under a bridge for four years."

Government aid often does not get through to the homeless because, despite their status as the poorest of the poor, most do not receive welfare or public assistance and often scavenge, panhandle or steal to live.

A briefing paper prepared for the White House last spring said that less than 35% of the homeless receive public funds. Social Security is supposed to be available to poor people who are unable to work, including those who are mentally ill, and other programs are designed for families.

But the paper said many of the homeless are too confused to prove their disabilities, a problem that is especially acute for those who are mentally ill.

The paper, which recommended that Reagan issue an executive order simplifying federal regulations that hinder the homeless, was dismissed as incomplete by Administration officials who testified last year before a congressional subcommittee holding hearings on the homeless problem.

Loophole in Safety Net

The paper's findings and recommendations echo what homeless activists and a growing group of public officials from Washington to Los Angeles have been saying--that the homeless represent a loophole in the social safety net.

Government programs have failed because they don't take into account the unusual nature of the homeless problem, Skid Row veterans say.

Many homeless are not clinically ill, but they lack the ability to get along in a competitive, modern society. They often do not read well and may not know how to act in groups. Many have never worked. Many have no friends, and maybe they never did.

"We're getting people who have never done anything but wolf down food like a dog," said Lee Holthaus, director of the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles, which houses 800 men every night--500 on folding chairs--and turns away dozens. "We have to teach them basic things like how to eat and how to hold a conversation, how to fill out a form. We have to teach them some assertiveness and the discipline to get a job."

Not all cases are so severe, said Jeff Dietrich, who opened the Catholic Worker soup kitchen more than 10 years ago and has seen the residents of Skid Row change.

Some people cannot cope when their troubles mount up, when they lose their job, get evicted or their unemployment benefits run out, and they become homeless, he said.

They do not plan to remain homeless for very long, and many of them find homes, but the problem is worse today because fewer are able to escape once they get caught in the homeless rut.

It takes at least $600 or $700, often more, to put down the first and last months' rent and a security deposit required to rent virtually any apartment in Los Angeles, said Dennis Albaugh, vice president of United Way in Los Angeles. Some try to sleep in their cars. If they don't have cars, they might try cheap hotels.

But even on Skid Row, where many of the hotels are infested with rats and cockroaches and the plumbing and heating are unreliable, the cheapest rooms go for $220 a month--paid in advance. Most have raised their rent to $240, because that is the rate the county pays for rooms.

Welfare Procedures

If they are homeless and qualify for county general relief, the lowest form of welfare, the county will put them up in Skid Row hotels for two weeks while their applications are being processed. To qualify, they must have less than $50 in cash and less than $500 in assets.

After two weeks in the $240 hotel room, the most they receive in relief is $228 a month. They can try to come up with some other money and keep the room, or they can move. But if they move to the streets, they are no longer eligible for benefits, because the law requires that welfare recipients have addresses where they can receive their checks.

Even if they try to stay in a hotel, Legal Aid attorney Gary Blasi said, some hotels make a practice of evicting tenants before they are there 30 consecutive days, which would make them eligible for rent control.

Food stamps supplement the general relief grant up to $79 a month for a single person. But many find food stamps nearly worthless because they cannot be used in restaurants, except on rare occasions, and there are no kitchens in the hotel rooms or on the street.

"It's crazy," said Ella Parnessa, who said she moves between the Norbo Hotel and the streets. "I just don't understand this system, if that's what they call it."

The most pressing and immediate need, according to recent studies and several Skid Row workers, is to provide beds and a place where the homeless can regroup.

"It's hard to get a job if you haven't showered in two weeks," said Blasi, who won three lawsuits last year that forced Los Angeles County to clean up Skid Row hotels and find more beds for the homeless. "And if you have to leave the psychiatrist's office and go back to the gutter, it's probably not going to help."

More than 90% of all shelter beds in the nation are privately run, and the charities say they need government help to meet the growing need.

Government Wrangling

In the several years that government has been trying to deal with the homeless, attempts to increase the number of beds have bogged down in wrangling between the different levels of government.

Congress has spent $170 million on food and emergency shelter in the last two years--about $8.7 million in Los Angeles County. The money, which was spent mostly on food, was gone as soon as it became available, and dozens of requests for help were turned down in Los Angeles alone.

The Reagan Administration opposes more federal funds for shelters because of the push to reduce domestic spending and cut the deficit. Administration officials say the homeless have to be dealt with primarily by the states--most of which have budget surpluses--and by local officials.

"The President is interested . . . and had a good depth of understanding about the problem" when he was briefed last spring, said Dr. Harvey Vieth, an official of the Department of Health and Human Services who is chairman of the Administration's homeless task force. "I've been in and out of shelters all over the country, and it's a sad thing. It's a crisis."

As the problem grew, Vieth said, "some cities did not address it. They said, 'Look, these people are from somewhere else. . . .' There are no more federal dollars. It is definitely a local problem and has to start being resolved at the local level."

The Administration is willing to make surplus buildings available and take other steps that are not too costly, Vieth said.

But the most publicized attempt to provide surplus government property has been a flop so far.

Military Barracks

Two winters ago the Reagan Administration made front-page news with a plan to make up to 600 surplus military barracks available as emergency housing for the homeless. Despite the hoopla, only four such shelters have been opened--none in California--and most of the $8 million appropriated for the project was used instead on Army Reserve maintenance needs. Local officials said they were unable to even make contact with Pentagon officials.

"I spent hours calling one entity after another," said Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Grace Davis. "I couldn't find anybody who knows anything about anything."

After a rash of complaints, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger reorganized the project late last year and sent a directive to local commanders reminding them that the need for shelter is serious. Two more shelters are planned--one at Camp Parks in Alameda County--and a Pentagon delegation visited Los Angeles last month.

In California, the only state money appropriated for shelters last year was $5 million pushed through the Legislature by Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles).

After it is divided up throughout the state, the bill will provide $1.5 million in Los Angeles, spread thinly over dozens of existing shelter operations to help them stay open and add a few beds.

The Deukmejian Administration vetoed most other housing bills, and Waters said the Administration initially opposed her bill. It was signed only after an agreement was reached to provide money in the Assembly's budget bill for a state Department of Finance computer, according to her staff and the bill's lobbyists.

"Unless they come up and ask for more computers this year, we're in trouble," said Marc Brown, a staff attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance.

State Financing

Deukmejian has been praised by advocates for the homeless for increasing state funds for mental health care last year, and he has requested another boost this year. The money is expected to help expand counseling services for the homeless mentally ill.

Homelessness seems to be an increasing problem that the state should help with, said Susan DeSantis, state director of the Department of Housing and Community Development. But the Deukmejian Administration does not plan to consider further aid for the homeless before a report that the governor requested is delivered later this spring, she said.

In Los Angeles, the city has helped finance shelter projects providing a few hundred beds, mostly on Skid Row. The city's Community Redevelopment Agency has supported the Weingart Center, a large privately run hotel that also provides social services, and set up a nonprofit corporation that runs Transition House, a model shelter hailed nationally for helping homeless men and women reenter the mainstream.

The county pays $5.4 million a year to house about 2,500 people a night in low-rent, often barren and roach-infested hotel rooms on Skid Row and in outlying areas from Lancaster to Long Beach. Applications for rooms have doubled in the last year to 3,800 a month, said Eddy Tanaka, director of the county Department of Social Services, and all who qualify have been housed since the supply of rooms was increased in September.

Because of the lawsuits criticizing the county for keeping these homeless in substandard hotels, officials are investigating the feasibility of contracting to move them into cleaner, safer dormitories.

The county also helps finance a family shelter with 50 beds in the Long Beach area and has plans to help open small family shelters in Willowbrook and the San Fernando Valley.

Attempts to expand the supply of beds repeatedly run up against political feuding between Mayor Tom Bradley, a liberal Democrat, and the Republican conservatives who control the Board of Supervisors.

Bradley Wants Help

Bradley said the city has the money to build or renovate more shelters. But the city cannot afford to run the shelters and wants the county to help. By law it is the county's job to provide such social services, Bradley said.

County officials do not want the added cost of providing housing to the majority of homeless who do not get general relief either because they do not apply or are not qualified.

General relief already costs about $88 million a year, and any increase would have to come out of already tight local revenues because the Legislature does not help defray welfare costs, county officials said.

"If these people will walk into a DPSS (welfare) office and request a room, they will get one," said Supervisor Deane Dana.

The conservatives have also opposed overtures to coordinate the county's activities with City Hall, despite being urged by the chairman of the board's homeless task force to include the city in all plans. "There is a tremendous fragmentation of effort," said Al Greenstein, an official of Atlantic Richfield Corp., task force chairman.

The board majority also refused the city's request for help to operate the city-run shelter built last month on Skid Row by volunteer labor unions. Democrats Ed Edelman, the board's chairman, and Kenneth Hahn put up $22,000 each from their district funds to support the shelter.

Edelman and other liberals say the conservative board majority is acting out of malice toward Bradley, who is running for reelection and needs a strong showing to prepare for a possible challenge to Republican Gov. Deukmejian next year.

Edelman, who began holding hearings on the homeless last summer, has toured Skid Row hotels and spent time visiting shelters on Skid Row. He contends that the board majority is ignoring a serious problem.

Dana and the other Republicans argue that county revenues are limited and that the problem is not as bad as some people think.

Their policies have come in for heavy criticism in the last year.

Grand Jury Reproach

In a letter to the Board of Supervisors last month, the Los Angeles County Grand Jury accused county officials of resorting to the "Calcutta Method--which is to ignore the problem until the court takes action, then make as slow and feeble a response as possible and, when the lawyers go away, drop the ball."

County officials contend that the grand jury's research failed to take into account various programs that help the homeless and the county's limited ability to raise revenue.

Nonetheless, county welfare policies--especially a rule suspending benefits for 60 days for missing work and less serious violations--have been blamed by critics for adding to the woes of the homeless.

"Mentally disturbed and emotionally distraught applicants are unable to fill out the complex and repetitive forms," the grand jury letter said. "It appears that in Los Angeles County the objective is to terminate from public assistance as many people as possible for as long as possible, thus keeping down costs."

Welfare officials say the 60-day penalty--which was 30 days until 1982--is needed to ensure that employable welfare recipients look for work and comply with the rules and to deter suspected migration by the poor into Los Angeles. Reducing the penalty to 30 days would cost $12 million to $16 million in added benefits paid out, welfare chief Tanaka said.

"In a public assistance program, you have to have eligibility requirements or you just give everybody a guaranteed income," Tanaka said.

About a third of the 33,000 recipients are considered employable and are required to work about eight days a month on maintenance and menial jobs to pay back their benefits. They are also required to look for work and to take in the names of 20 employers they contacted each month.

There is a review process for anyone whose benefits are suspended, but almost nobody who is cut off general relief appears for the review hearing, Tanaka said.

Next: What's being done.

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