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One of Their Own : Activist Gets Funds to Help His Fellow Homeless

Times City-County Bureau Chief

Several months ago, Mike Neely, a Skid Row activist and recovering drug addict, decided that the best way to help the homeless on the dangerous streets east of downtown was to work with the city’s Establishment.

He went to a city agency closely identified with Los Angeles political power, the Community Redevelopment Agency, and asked for money to hire five homeless people, open a storefront office and try to persuade the homeless to enroll in drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs.

“I wanted to let them know about the services that were available,” Neely said. “This is a community that doesn’t read the newspaper, watch television or listen to the radio.”

There are similar programs on the Row, where the unemployed, the mentally ill and other of society’s rejects--and their children--share street corners, run-down hotels and doorways with drug addicts, dealers and strong-arm robbers.

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The idea is to bring the homeless into society by persuading them to take advantage of the benefits to which many of them are entitled but may not know about--and steering them through the paper work maze at many social service agencies. An narcotics-addicted Vietnam veteran, for example, could be steered to a Veterans Administration rehabilitation program and to other benefits--and finally to a job and a home.

But Neely’s idea--homeless helping the homeless--had a particular appeal to the redevelopment agency board and its chairman, Jim Wood. It reminded him of Alcoholics Anonymous, where recovering alcoholics talk to current alcoholics.

After investigating Neely and studying his proposal, the board voted Wednesday to award his Homeless Outreach Program $58,600 for a six-month pilot effort.

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“We are sending Mr. Neely and the money into the heart of the toughest problem Los Angeles faces,” Wood said.

Telling how he drove through Skid Row Tuesday night and watched men and women shooting up heroin near a CRA shelter at 5th Street and San Julan Place, Wood said, “The role of alcohol and drugs is devastating.”

“I don’t know how successful Mike will be. It is as sad a sight as I have ever seen. I hope Mike can make a difference. . . . He is going out into a battle zone.”

“We know the turf; we know the territory,” Neely said after the meeting. Emotion overcoming him, he cried as he stood in the hallway outside the CRA board meeting room, and it was a few minutes before he could speak to a reporter.

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Worked in Aerospace Industry

Neely, 39, had quit a job in the aerospace industry to try to improve conditions for Skid Row’s homeless. Drug-free for two years and living in an apartment in Hollywood, he had decided, “I wanted to do something. I needed to do something,” he said. First as a visitor and then as a street person, he assisted Ted Hayes, the Skid Row organizer who has attacked local government’s efforts in press conferences and in speeches before the City Council and the Board of Supervisors.

Neely lived in the city’s homeless camp and in shelters. He hung out on the streets. He joined in the attacks on government. But his efforts and those of Hayes did not seem to work. That’s when he turned to the CRA.

In the pilot program, Neely and five others--homeless people he will recruit--will refer the homeless to social service agencies. The $58,600 will pay for salaries for Neely and the others and for rent of a storefront office and small radios for communication.

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USC Prof. Michael Dear, an expert in outreach programs, will evaluate the program and report to the CRA on whether it has worked during the trial period.


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