It seemed like an idea akin to mom and apple pie.
With dozens of homeless people huddled around Memorial Park and wandering Colorado Boulevard, who could argue against a proposal from Lutheran Social Services to build a shelter for 15 homeless women and children?
The program was for one of the neediest segments of the homeless community and would have been housed in a refurbished 2-story house in a neighborhood of vacant lots and auto repair shops on North Fair Oaks Avenue.
But instead of cheers, the plan sparked an outpouring of anger and reignited a controversy that many in the economically depressed northwest say is an important part of their uphill battle against urban blight.
Residents who opposed the plan say the area has become a “dumping ground” for everything that other neighborhoods of the city don’t want.
The city Board of Directors reluctantly rejected the proposal Oct. 17 from Lutheran Social Services, saying the northwest has already received far more than its share of institutional uses.
“It’s a matter of principle,” said Director Loretta Thompson-Glickman. “This area is already over-impacted.”
Mayor William Thomson said the controversy over the Lutheran shelter has led the board to start looking at a ban against more institutional uses in the city’s most impoverished area.
“There’s a real feeling of resentment that has built up over the neglect and some say intentional infliction of these facilities on a section of the city,” Thomson said. “We’re going to have to do a better job of distributing these facilities. I think you will see a city policy in the future of real reluctance to approve any new institutional uses in the area.”
According to a Times survey, there are far more nursing homes, drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, halfway homes and group residences in the northwest than any other part of the city.
Of the 110 Pasadena facilities surveyed, eight are drug or alcohol treatment programs, six are emergency shelters, 15 are skilled nursing homes, and the rest are residential care facilities for the disabled, mentally retarded or elderly.
Fifty-five of the facilities are located in the northwest, which represents only 15% of the city’s area.
On one half-mile section of North Fair Oaks Avenue above Washington Boulevard there are 15 nursing homes and an 80-bed drug rehabilitation center. The street has been derisively termed “Convalescent Row.”
“We’ve been so overwhelmed by other peoples’ problems,” said Thomas D. Scott, a local businessman and coordinator of the citizens committee overseeing the redevelopment of North Fair Oaks.
Many of the facilities have existed in the northwest for decades, and several nursing homes date to the 1930s when the area was an affluent residential neighborhood. In those days, the area was sought out because of its peaceful location abutting the San Gabriel Mountains.
But recently it has become a haven for social services because of its cheaper land and housing.
Scott said the lack of organized opposition has also made the area an easy target. The city estimates about 63% of the residents in the northwest are renters, who Scott said are less likely to mobilize against a change in their neighborhood.
“It’s the path of least resistance,” he said.
For some, like Manuel Ruiz, who lives on North Raymond Avenue next to Impact Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center, an 18-year-old nonprofit organization, the facilities have been barely noticeable.
“I don’t care what other people say, it has been no problem for me,” he said.
But others say the area passed its saturation point long ago, and residents have lost their tolerance of the situation.
“Why do they have to push all this garbage here?” said Willa Mae Braddock, head of the United Neighborhood Improvement Team, a northwest neighborhood association. “Don’t push it all over here where every time we open the door we have to worry about some wino or drug addict coming in. Don’t degrade us; let somebody else tolerate them.”
Added Scott: “If you attempted this in any predominantly white area, you would have had a riot.”
The problem, according to Director William Paparian, “is that these facilities are all going into the northwest. There is a feeling that one area is being treated differently than the rest of the city.”
A few other sections of the city do have a noticeable number of such facilities. For example, a 1-square-mile area east of Lake Avenue, between Orange Grove Boulevard and the Foothill Freeway, has about a dozen facilities.
But other sections of the city, such as Linda Vista, Hastings Ranch and Oak Knoll, have few, if any, in their neighborhoods.
In the northwest, Scott said the facilities have helped create a community of fragmented residential neighborhoods and commercial areas.
The area already is dotted with more liquor stores, auto body repair shops, bars and equipment storage yards than residents care to see.
“These institutions are just one more thing on the pile,” he said.
The northwest is a 3 1/2-square-mile tract bounded by the Foothill Freeway to the south, Altadena to the north, the Arroyo Seco to the west and Lake Avenue to the east.
It is one of the poorest areas in the city: 24.1% of the population lives below the poverty level, according to a city study done in 1984.
Nearly 81% of its residents are minorities, compared to 45.3% citywide, according to the study. The area is 50.2% black and 27.3% Latino and the rest is largely Anglo, according to the 1980 U.S. Census.
Beyond the statistics, the area seems to stand out from the rest of Pasadena as if, as many people say, it is a separate city.
Barred windows are on the front of many old Craftsman-style bungalows, vacant lots dot the area and there are more liquor stores and bars than toy stores, book stores, movie theaters and supermarkets combined.
Thompson-Glickman said the facilities have gobbled up some of the best real estate in the northwest. The loss of housing, she said, is especially critical since homeowners are the foundation of stable neighborhoods.
“They are taking affordable housing away from Pasadenans, and most are larger houses,” she said. “We end up with these patchwork neighborhoods that you wouldn’t find in the southeast, which are strictly residential.”
Scott said the loss of commercial space to nursing homes, treatment centers and shelters has damaged the area by draining away land that could be used by small businesses, which provide jobs and services to the community.
While many facilities cause no problems, neither do they stimulate business or attract shoppers, Scott said.
What angers some residents is that some of the services provided by the facilities are unavailable to the very residents who live nearby, Scott said.
“No one minds taking care of their own, but they have been destabilizing an area by allowing uses that have nothing to do with the community,” he said.
One drug and alcohol treatment counselor who did not want to be identified said that although drug use is “epidemic” in the northwest, he has rarely placed a client in a local residential program because of the shortage of spaces for low-income residents.
“We’re placing all our people in L.A.--we can’t even get into any place here,” he said.
Officials from private institutions say they treat those who can pay regardless of where they come from; other administrators who depend on county funds say they are prevented from giving preference to residents from a particular area.
Elliot Sainer, administrator of Pasadena Community Hospital, which operates a psychiatric clinic and chemical dependency treatment center on North Fair Oaks, said it is expensive to provide free care for the poor. Sainer’s facility does occasionally provide free care but not specifically for northwest residents.
“We still have to make more than we spend,” he said, adding that care can cost from $400 to $800 a day at his facility.
The 80-bed Impact Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center now gives preference to Pasadena residents for the two free beds it reserves. The group expects to add two more free beds when its expansion to 120 beds is completed next year.
To prevent the spread of more institutions to the northwest, the Board of Directors has informally agreed over the last five years to oppose new residential care facilities in the area.
But it has had a spotty record backing that stand.
“It was a gentlemen’s agreement, you might say,” Thompson-Glickman said. “But really, it hasn’t been much of a policy.”
The board rejected the Lutheran shelter, but in the last 2 years, city zoning hearing officers have approved a shelter for homeless families called the Door of Hope on North Los Robles Avenue and an expansion of Impact Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center.
Following the debate over the Lutheran shelter, the board has started looking at a formal ban on new facilities in the northwest, Thompson-Glickman said.
Several neighborhood groups have talked about taking legal action against the city to stop any more from moving to the northwest, Scott said.
But for many, it is too little, too late. A ban would not reduce the number of facilities that already exist, and small facilities with fewer than six residents would still be allowed because they are exempt by state law from city regulation.
A ban would also force the city into a dilemma because of its potential effect on social service providers.
Jim Page, vice president of Lutheran Social Services of Southern California, said the rejection of the Lutheran shelter, which was set to open in June, resulted in stranding 15 women and children on the streets. “We were literally days away from opening,” he said.
Last week, the city offered Lutheran Social Services the temporary use of an old civil defense facility in Eaton Canyon as a shelter.
But that still leaves the problem of finding a permanent location and dealing with a lawsuit or ban that would close off one of the few affordable areas in the city.
In an era of shrinking funds for social services, competing for land in the tony neighborhoods of Linda Vista, San Rafael, Hastings Ranch or Oak Knoll would be a grim prospect, Page said.
“The financial thing is a real problem that we can’t get away from,” Page said. “Unfortunately, the only place we can afford is in a run-down area.”