Initiative Seeks Statewide Approach to Homeless Problem

Staff Writer

A group of business, political and civic leaders are pushing a ballot initiative they say would create the first comprehensive statewide approach to the problem of homelessness and make slumlords and other health and safety code violators foot the bill.

Organizers of Californians Working Together said they are responding to a "failure of political will" at all levels of government to deal effectively with homelessness.

By going directly to the voters through an initiative, supporters hope to cut through the jurisdictional, philosophical and partisan bickering that has hampered legislative attempts to coordinate social programs and secure sources of funding.

State Board of Equalization Chairman Conway Collis, who has spearheaded the effort, said the housing and nutritional assistance initiative is intended to deal with the problem of homelessness from "getting the homeless into a shelter to getting them into a job." It is hoped the measure will qualify for the November ballot.

'Show Leadership'

"Just as with Prop. 13," the tax reform proposition that touched off a tax revolt nationwide, Collis said "it's time for California to show leadership in another area."

California is believed to have one of the highest populations of homeless in the nation, with an estimated 33,000 in Los Angeles County alone by one widely cited estimate.

Efforts to deal with the problem have often pitted cities against counties and social service providers against the government agencies that fund them. The City of Los Angeles has sued the County of Los Angeles, accusing the county of failing to effectively operate the general relief program.

Even the initiative's sponsors admit it is not a panacea for homelessness, and it has its detractors within the community of homeless activists. "I can't get real excited about this. I wish I could," said Nancy Mintie, director of the Inner City Law Center.

"The problem I see is that the money would go to the county supervisors," Mintie said. "They are the biggest stumbling block we have in Los Angeles."

Mintie said the county has not been responsive to the problems of the homeless and has misused money it received from the state for homeless programs, spending much of it in affluent areas. "A program is only as good as the people who run it," Mintie said. "General relief could be a good program, but it isn't."

Avoid Legislative Process

It is those kinds of problems that convinced Collis to seek a ballot initiative and avoid the legislative process.

Collis said the initiative program could raise $50 million to $90 million in its first year and fund an additional $150 million in revenue bonds--all without using any tax money.

Under terms of the initiative, new fines on existing violations and infractions would be levied for safety, health and building code violations.

Currently, violators are given warnings and told to correct the problems. Only after repeated infractions are they prosecuted criminally.

Under the initiative, landlords, restaurant owners and commercial building operators would face fines of several hundred dollars each time inspectors find a violation.

In Los Angeles County alone in 1987, there were 122,000 violations cited by inspectors. But only 1,200 prosecutions were brought, according to Collis. At an average estimated fine of $200 for each infraction, the program would have raised nearly $25 million in Los Angeles County alone last year.

Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, who was an early supporter of the initiative, said the program could act as an incentive for inspectors to be even more diligent in seeking violations.

"This is a way to tap into something that now serves no purpose," said Reiner of the new fines. "It will provide a tremendous source of funds."

In order to receive their share of the funds, counties would be required to submit a plan for addressing the homeless problem to a new agency to be created in the state Department of Housing. The plans would be required to include a wide variety of traditional services--such as housing, medical assistance, drug and alcohol abuse programs and job training--and would also have to offer some innovative plans.

One such idea is a revolving fund to help the working poor secure an apartment. Often working homeless people have enough money to pay rent, but lack savings to put up the first and last month's rent and various other deposits. The revolving fund would act as a bank to lend homeless workers the money necessary to get established.

The initiative would also establish a California Savings Bond, modeled after the federal program, that would be sold in small denominations of $25, $50 and $100. The bonds would be used to finance low-income housing and would be paid off by money raised through the fines on code violators.

Collis said he expects that many small investors would buy the bonds. "Our polling told us that people want to help," Collis said. "They want to get involved in working for a solution."

400,000 Signatures Claimed

Indeed, in its first 45 days of canvassing, Californians Working Together claims to have accumulated more than 400,000 signatures.

The measure needs 372,175 valid signatures to become effective. To be on the safe side, officials with Californians Working Together said they hope to submit more than 500,000 signatures when they file the petition with the secretary of state.

Californians Working Together has raised about $300,000 of the $350,000 it needs to complete the petition drive. In November it raised $75,000 through a benefit concert at the Universal Amphitheater that featured the pop group Chicago, singers Michael McDonald and Belinda Carlisle and comic Cheech Marin.

Even some business groups that would likely bear the brunt of the fines are supporting the initiative.

"It's a chance to address something of public concern without raising taxes," said Rex Hime, executive director of the California Business Properties Assn., a trade organization that represents about 7,000 shopping center and office building owners and operators in the state. "It's a good government approach to addressing a problem."

Hime, who serves on the advisory board of the initiative group, said he has not found any organized opposition to the measure and has had inquiries from other real estate groups who want more information on the proposal. "None of us condone deliberate and on-going violations," Hime said.

Reiner said he expects that some groups of landlords will attempt to oppose the initiative, "but they will be ineffective. I can't see anything but overwhelming support."

One reason for the apparent early success of the initiative is that organizers did extensive polling of public attitudes before drafting the proposal. In seeking new approaches to the problem, Collis recruited 60 to 70 business and civic leaders from throughout the state to participate in panels and focus groups that pieced together the proposal.

Once the basic plan was sketched out, the proposal was sent to 500 government officials and community leaders in the state for comment and criticism, Collis said.

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