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Help for the Homeless

The mentally ill who find themselves destitute and on the streets often carry burdens beyond their comprehension. But they face still more handicaps when they seek the general relief payments that could help them survive: application forms seem unnecessarily complex even to a person whose brain is not clouded by illness, drugs or alcohol. Because too few county workers can help the troubled poor through the maze of papers and offices, some who are entitled to help from Los Angeles County do not receive it.

The problem affects few rather than many. But it is indicative of a county leadership that, pressed by financial constraints, is not moving to expand relief rolls or display sensitivity a visible need.

The complexity of the application process has now become the subject of a lawsuit filed by several public interest law firms representing people who have had difficulty obtaining general relief. The county Board of Supervisors has in the past been asked to simplify the process; flexibility at the departmental level could eliminate the time and cost of court hearings while granting people payments the law says they should have.

The lawyers cite cases of mentally ill people unable to understand the basic general relief applications forms, to provide necessary documentation, or to find their way to the numerous offices they must visit. One plaintiff had to talk to 30 different people in nine separate locations.

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The problems of traveling to various offices when one has no money, the sheer volume of the forms, and the inability of some county workers to help the mentally ill through the process presents “a barrier as insurmountable as is a staircase to a person in a wheelchair,” the attorneys wrote. The consequences are severe: deprived of the means to obtain food, shelter, and clothing, the homes “are consigned to wander our streets begging . . . seeking refuge in alleys and doorways, under bridges, in abandoned cars, and in already overcrowded churches and missions.”

The county’s own figures, made public last week, show that most of the homeless people surveyed on Skid Row within the last two years show signs of some psychological distress. Half were addicted to drugs or alcohol. Of the homeless surveyed jointly by the county Department of Mental Health and the National Institute of Mental Health, 30% were eligible for some kind of benefits that could alleviate their poverty. Many are not getting the help they need. Simplifying the process is only one step, but one that must be undertaken.

The process is designed to be tough, and the county is justified in not handing out public money to just anyone who walks in and says he needs it. But being tough need not mean being overly complex or absolutely insensitive.


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