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Homeless Still Skeptical of Plans for Drop-In Center : Services: New facility near Downtown would provide sleeping areas and more. But advocates for street people say it’s just a way to sweep their problems under the rug.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

No officials asked Nate Forrest his opinion on the Riordan Administration’s controversial proposal to open a drop-in center Downtown for the homeless. But after living on the streets for nine years, he has a few suggestions.

The center, which would offer Forrest and about 200 other homeless people a fenced-in, grassy yard where they could sleep, has sparked a rancorous debate. Advocates for the homeless have accused business leaders and city officials of trying to hide the homeless in an industrial area far from the high-rise business district.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Feb. 05, 1995 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 5, 1995 Home Edition City Times Page 4 Zones Desk 2 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Union Rescue Mission--A City Times story on Jan. 29 reported that the Union Rescue Mission in Downtown did not supply beds for women and that the Downtown area had fewer than 50 emergency-shelter beds available for women. The mission has begun regular support for women, including 110 emergency shelter beds. The mission’s beds bring the total number earmarked for women in the Downtown area to about 160.

Just blocks from City Hall but distanced by poverty from the discussions about the camp, Forrest and some of the estimated 8,000 who live Downtown on the streets, under freeway underpasses or in doorways and public parks said they are concerned that the city just wants them out of sight, out of mind.

Although some said they would appreciate a place where they could wash up, many homeless people said that the proposed center would do little to meet their immediate needs, and that the $4-million federal grant to pay for the center would be better spent on food, clothing and programs to help them get off the streets permanently.

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“They are not really trying to help. They are treating us like stray dogs,” said one homeless woman, Toni Robertson, 26.

Deputy Mayor Rae Franklin James defended the camp proposal: “This is not about clearing the streets of homeless people. It’s about giving the homeless people options so they don’t have to stay on the streets.”

In order to receive the funding for the center, the city had to come up with an innovative way to address homelessness, she added.

“This is just another solution to a problem that needs many solutions,” James said.

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But Forrest contends that city officials are using the funds to sweep the homeless from the business district’s doorways.

“It isn’t anything personal--it’s money,” he said.

He believes the camp is the city’s response to the disdain he often sees in the faces of the 9-to-5, suited contingent he depends on for handouts amounting to $10 to $15 a day.

The facility would offer job counseling and bathroom and laundry facilities on a drop-in basis. It is unclear whether the homeless would be allowed to sleep there overnight, James said. An exact location has not been determined, but it would be in the industrial zone east of Downtown.

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The city plans to create an advisory board of homeless service providers, business leaders and homeless representatives to help shape the center, which has received preliminary approval from the City Council and the County Board of Supervisors.

Food and clothing would be at the top of Forrest’s wish list if the money were his to spend.

“It’s difficult when you only have so much money in your pocket and you know you need socks, but your stomach is grumbling,” said Forrest, an unemployed carpenter who suffers from tuberculosis.

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Forrest, 36, said he might use the center for an occasional shower, but he wouldn’t spend much time there out of fear that any large gathering of the homeless has a potential for violence.

He said he stays away from the missions below Bunker Hill because there is too much tension, too much fighting.

Susan Harabedian, 44, liked the idea of a Downtown center for the homeless.

“People are camped out all over the streets anyway. Why not give them an official campground?” she said.

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After four years in women’s shelters and single-room hotels, Harabedian said she has hit bottom. She has been on the streets for the last six months. Saying she suffers from mental illness, as do about a third of the county’s homeless, she complained that her mental and physical condition have deteriorated while she has been on the streets.

If the drop-in center is easily accessible, it could help link the mentally ill to services and benefits that they are eligible for but unaware of, said Kevin Tsang, clinic director of the county’s Skid Row Mental Health Center.

Harabedian, however, said she would prefer to go to work.

“They could put us on a farm and give us chores so we wouldn’t be sitting around all day, or we could go to work cleaning up this city. It’s filthy you know, dear,” she said.

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At night Harabedian, bundles up in her coat and sweaters and sleeps outside the doors of the Union Rescue Mission. There is no bed for her inside because women are not allowed.

There are fewer than 50 emergency-shelter beds for women Downtown, but there are about 500 for men, said Debra Garvey, director of the Downtown Women’s Center. Gene Boutilier, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, estimated that about 20% of Skid Row’s homeless are single women.

City officials are aware of the dearth of services for women Downtown, and although the proposed center would be open to women, it is not geared to addressing this burgeoning problem, James said.

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Some homeless said the funds for the drop-in center should be given to existing shelters and homeless service providers they have come to trust so these organizations can expand their job training, education programs and shelter services.

But others, some of whom have spent years or even decades on the streets--the hard-core homeless--are reluctant to rely on these established providers for help.

Bob Erlensbusch, director of the Los Angeles Coalition to End Homelessness, suggested that the drop-in center might be helpful for those who have recently fallen on hard times and simply need a rest stop where they can take a shower before going out to a job interview. But for the long-term homeless, extensive one-on-one counseling is necessary to help rebuild shattered self-esteem, he said.

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Fred Wolf, 59, doesn’t consider himself homeless; he is just “sleeping out,” and has been doing so since the 1960s. He and many other homeless stay away from the shelters because of their restrictions. Most regulate one’s comings and goings and prohibit drinking and drug use.

The center would most likely allow those under the influence of drugs and alcohol to enter, but it would not permit substance abuse inside, James said.

San Diego’s Neil Good Center, which has a similar policy and served as a model for the drop-in center, became a magnet for drug trafficking and gang activity when it first opened, San Diego Councilman Juan Vargas said.

Officials there were forced to add security and change the center’s image from a place to snooze to a place to find work to get things under control, Vargas said.

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


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