Homeless Camp Weighed in L.A. Industrial Area

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Determined to make Downtown Los Angeles friendlier to business, the Riordan Administration has launched a plan to shuttle homeless people to an urban campground on a fenced lot in the city's core industrial area.

The mayor's proposal, which has come under heated attack by some homeless advocates, calls for turning a vacant city block in the eastern part of Downtown into a homeless drop-in center, where up to 800 people could take showers and sleep on a lawn.

"This is not about clearing the streets of homeless people," said Deputy Mayor Rae Franklin James, who is surveying the area to find the best location for the center. "It's about giving the homeless people options so they don't have to stay on the streets."

But Los Angeles homeless advocates say the proposal is a misguided ploy to keep the tattered hordes away from Downtown businesses and out of the sight of tourists and shoppers.

"If we're just looking to get people off the streets so we don't have to look at them, then that's what the city's proposing--an Orwellian poorhouse," said Alice Callaghan, director of Las Familias del Pueblo, a Skid Row social service center.

"Building a large fence or a stadium is nothing but a prison."

The mayor's proposal, modeled after a similar center in downtown San Diego, is scheduled to be considered Monday by the City Council's Housing and Community Redevelopment Committee. It will then be forwarded to the City Council, as well as the County Board of Supervisors, later this month.

The plan is a major component of a joint city and county effort to reduce homelessness in Los Angeles. The drop-in center would be funded with about $4 million of a $20-million U.S. Housing and Urban Development grant.

"We wanted a human solution because we don't think anything else really works," said Carol Schatz, the senior vice president for the Central City Assn., a business group that encouraged Mayor Richard Riordan to find a solution to the Downtown homeless problem.

"There is a perception, and we hear it over and over from employees, of not feeling safe when you are approached (for money)," Schatz said. "It's affecting business, that's the bottom line. People are reluctant to come Downtown. The mark of a civil society is finding a safe place for (the homeless) other than on the streets. "

Don Spivack, director of operations for the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency, said the city is looking for properties of four to six acres just east of Downtown, roughly from Main Street to the Los Angeles River.

"We are not going to allow people to camp on the streets at will . . . It is illegal and improper to camp in front of other people's property. So we feel it's very fair to give them another option," Spivack said. Asked if he expected a crackdown on such camp-outs once such a shelter opens, he replied: "I expect that to be the next step."

The city attorney's office generally has declined to prosecute people who sleep on the Downtown streets because there is not enough alternative housing in the area, said spokesman Mike Qualls. He said he was unsure whether the policy would be changed if the drop-in center is opened.

As part of the mayor's plan, outreach vans staffed by several social service workers would patrol the streets and transport homeless people to the drop-in facility on a voluntary basis.

The center would include a 50-bed shelter, along with showers, restrooms and lockers. The bulk of the facility, however, would include a large grassy area where transients could rest.

The center would be open around the clock. The homeless people would also be allowed to come in even if they are high on drugs or alcohol--something that is not tolerated at many shelters. Job and drug counseling would also be available at the site.

Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, head of the council committee that is to hear the proposal on Monday, said: "I think that it is important to recognize that the conditions under which homeless persons live on the street is problematic. It has to be humanely addressed.

"In the absence of an alternative, it would seem to me that the plan has some merit," he said. "As long as it's decent and it's clean and it's life affirming."

An aide to Councilwoman Rita Walters, in whose district the center may be located, also voiced support for the concept.

James, the Administration's expert on matters of housing, transportation and planning, was so impressed with San Diego's center during a recent trip that she decided to propose the same facility for Los Angeles.

"It doesn't have to be invented here to work here," James said. Riordan, who is on vacation, could not be reached for comment.

In San Diego, officials are not surprised that their Neil Good Center for the homeless is being emulated.

"We offer a straight-forward, no-brainer, no b.s. approach," said Bob McElroy, the high-energy former Bible student and former cocaine user and panhandler who serves as the center's executive director.

"We're not just another link in the enabling chain. If you're just looking for a handout and free meal, that's not us. If you want to get off the streets and get better, we're here."

About 30 homeless people were at the center shortly after lunch Thursday. Staff members say about 400 people a day use the facility. Spirited card games were under way at two tables inside, while a pair of chess players concentrated on their moves nearby. Several people sat reading, while others did their laundry or took a shower.

"People need this place." Clarence Rankin said firmly, standing at the entrance of the center. "It's a place where you can take a shower, get mail, make a phone call.

"This place keeps people off the street, gives them a place where they can relax, sleep, read," said Rankin, 52, who saw the stability in his life crumble when he began using crack cocaine. "I was working, but alcohol and drugs got in the way of my job."

However, the center has not been free of controversy.

One City Council member has complained that the facility has become a magnet for drug dealers, prostitutes and other miscreants. Now the city is trying to change the center's image from a place to snooze to a place to find work.

"When it started, it was a disaster," said San Diego Councilman Juan Vargas. "You had fights. You had gangs. You had drug trafficking.

"People thought this was going to be the cure to all our ills and it turned out to be the biggest ill of all. Now we are trying to transition out into a work center approach. We've added more security and we have the place under control now."

James said officials could make adjustments to the center's operations if Los Angeles encounters similar problems.

"Right now we are just working on the concept," she said.

If approved by the City Council and County Board of Supervisors, the project could be up and running in about two years, James said.

The idea has been embraced by Downtown Los Angeles' business leaders, as well as Downtown workers.

"This is not a solution to homelessness but it's a place to deal with them until the city, county and federal governments find a better answer," said Tracey Lovejoy, director of Central City East Commerce Assn.

"The reality is unless the county and city deal with homelessness in Central City East, there is not going to be a business community here anymore."

One worker at the L.A. Mall on Los Angeles Street said Riordan's plan is "beautiful."

"I can't see anything wrong with it if it's voluntary," said James Wallace-Sears, manager at Sears Shoe Service. "This is just another avenue."

Fred Shsche, who was shopping at a bookstore at the mall, said: "They need shelter. Maybe that way someone will control their access to drugs and alcohol. But I'm not sure the homeless will like it. Some of them like their freedom and lifestyle."

Indeed, several homeless people on Skid Row said they would be leery of using the proposed facility.

"They won't be able to deal with people as individuals," said George, a longtime Skid Row resident who would not give his last name. "And these people don't want to be controlled."

But 39-year-old Henry, who also declined to give his last name, said he would use the center to find permanent housing.

"I'm tired of living on the streets," he said.

Times staff writer Ed Boyer contributed to this report from San Diego. Ching-Ching Ni and Larry Gordon contributed from Los Angeles.

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