Baca Offers Ideas on Homelessness

Times Staff Writer

Six months after convening a summit to draw attention to the issue of homelessness in Los Angeles County, Sheriff Lee Baca on Tuesday offered a list of proposals to ease the problem, including such controversial ideas as diverting arts funding to pay for homeless programs and enacting new zoning laws to prevent neighborhoods from blocking shelters.

In a new report, Baca and the homeless advisory committee he chairs also suggested overhauling the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority so the city/county agency includes more policymakers in a position to obtain more local and federal funds for housing and other services.

Baca's panel also suggested the county extend its winter/wet weather shelter program to year-round operation. The program is scheduled to end its current cycle on Friday.

"These are a set of recommendations of which some may or may not be doable," Baca said in an interview. "Quite a few appear to be difficult but could work. The point is, there's no comprehensive strategy for the city and county in dealing with the homeless problem, and this report is an effort to pull together a strategy."

Baca said he has become involved in the issue because the jails his department runs are swamped with homeless people arrested on a variety of violations. It is also a matter of personal conviction, he said.

The report released Tuesday is the product of a September gathering of activists and civic leaders at which Los Angeles was called "ground zero" for the problem of homelessness in the nation. Experts estimate that as many as 84,000 people live on the streets or in emergency shelters each night in Los Angeles County.

The report suggests homelessness is such an emergency that some arts money -- such as construction fees set aside for sculpture or other art -- be shifted to homeless programs. Several area cities, including Los Angeles, require such set-asides.

Arts patrons scoffed at the idea, arguing that money from such fees is so paltry it would hardly make a dent in the homeless problem while its loss would harm many worthy community arts projects.

"If we solve every social problem tomorrow, but there are no parks in Los Angeles, or museums, who would want to live here?" said Laura Zucker, executive director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission. "I would not ask to divert all the money from the Sheriff's Department to create a hundred new museums."

Even more controversial may be the report's suggestion that zoning rules be changed to overcome the "not in my back yard" sentiments that keep facilities for the homeless and mentally ill out of many communities and concentrate them in downtown Los Angeles.

Another proposal in the report calls for studying implementation of a statewide right-to-shelter law, such as one in New York City that requires emergency housing be found for homeless people. The sheriff's group also suggested that trained volunteers, patterned on court-appointed special advocates for children, work in the courts to help homeless people receive services such as counseling and substance-abuse rehabilitation.

Homelessness in Los Angeles and the challenges it raises are hot political issues, with a recent spate of ordinances in the region banning sidewalk sleeping and feeding of the homeless.

Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton has made cleaning up skid row a major priority and has ordered a crackdown on quality-of-life crimes there. The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the department to stop the ticketing and arrests of people there.

While Baca says that laws should be enforced, he disagrees with criminalizing activities such as panhandling. He said he has talked to Bratton about the role of law enforcement in helping the homeless find services rather than rounding them up.

"The homeless problem is not going to go away and only increases with every month of delay in bringing political cohesion to the county," the sheriff said.

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