ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : Shelter Them or Step Over Them

Homelessness won't simply go away just because everyone wants it to, as cities such as Santa Ana are discovering. So far, Santa Ana's attempts to alleviate the sanitation and safety problems caused by the estimated 200 to 300 homeless living in its Civic Center have been misguided and costly. The city's experience is a textbook case of what not to do, and, as such, can be instructive for other cities facing similar problems.

Last August, for example, the city agreed to pay $400,000 to homeless people who sued after a series of police sweeps of the Civic Center. By that point, a Municipal Court judge had already strongly rebuked the police over the incident. She also threw out criminal charges against the more than 60 homeless who had been arrested for charges varying from littering to picking leaves off trees. The pretrial settlement of civil suits brought by 31 of those arrested put an end to the sweeps.

But it would have been so much better had the city been able to spend that money on drug or alcohol rehabilitation services for the homeless, or on getting a start on a shelter project.

Of the plaintiffs who received $11,000 apiece, about a third ended up back in the Civic Center when their money ran out. Others still are on "the inside," hoping the money can provide the leverage to keep them off the streets permanently. The incident is a striking example of how a city can repeatedly miss opportunities to seriously address the issue of homelessness.

Santa Ana's latest attempt to alleviate the problem came from the Recreation and Community Services Agency, which asked the Civic Center homeless to move their encampments to a designated area in a parking lot. As of a week ago, only about half a dozen had accepted the invitation. Even if more people move, however, the problem will hardly be resolved.

People who park their cars in the lot are likely to complain. Also, shifting people around fails to take into account the dynamic nature of the homeless population; homeless people tend to congregate in groups according to race, substance addictions and other factors. Bringing everyone together in a parking lot may ignite tensions better left alone. One thing at least is good: By making it clear that the program is strictly voluntary, the city is not tempting homeless advocates to challenge its actions in the courts.

To a great extent, Santa Ana--like downtown Los Angeles--has been unfairly saddled with the entire region's homeless problem. But Santa Ana has also failed to bring together the agencies and individuals who could develop an overall strategy for addressing homelessness. No real strides can be made until there is a comprehensive plan for adequate shelters and services for those members of society who have been reduced to the point where they have no place to live.

As one homeless advocate put it, Santa Ana "can either shelter them or step over them." So far, the city, like so many other urban havens for the homeless, has chosen mostly to step over them. It can and must do better.

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