Defeat Plagues Efforts to Clean Up Skid Row
In recent weeks, Los Angeles political figures, including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Police Chief William J. Bratton and Sheriff Lee Baca, have proclaimed the need to -- finally -- solve the problems plaguing homeless people on skid row.
For some, the calls have an eerie echo.
It was just 2 1/2 years ago that several of the same figures launched a blue-ribbon committee with a bold goal: ending homelessness in Los Angeles County within a decade.
The committee, consisting of more than 60 people, included those with the resources and political clout to move toward that goal: The sheriff. The cardinal. The police chief. The mayor. City Council members. Representatives from law enforcement, philanthropy, social services and business.
“Everyone made a big deal about how different this was going to be,” recalled committee member Paul Vert, president and chief executive of Young’s Market.
Instead, the committee, Bring L.A. Home!, has been mired in delays, disagreements and political maneuvering, including policy differences between former Mayor James K. Hahn and Villaraigosa.
Multiple deadlines for the group’s plan have come and gone. As recently as last month, with the plan nearly two years overdue, executive committee members debated whether to have an exclamation point at the end of the group’s name, which forms the unfortunate acronym BLAH!
Committee meetings got so contentious that a facilitator was called in to run them. Many of the VIPs whose names are on the group’s letterhead stopped going to meetings, or never went at all. Their estimates of the homeless population turned out to be way off, delaying the process further.
The track record of Bring L.A. Home! offers a cautionary tale, underscoring both the sheer depth of the homelessness problem in Los Angeles and the heated politics that surround it.
Reducing homelessness in a region such as Los Angeles “is a very nuanced process,” said committee member Ruth Schwartz of Shelter Partnership Inc. “It requires a lot of sophistication. But this effort really didn’t have it.”
Los Angeles city leaders have been talking for decades about fixing skid row, a gritty area of downtown that is home to about 8,000 to 10,000 homeless people as well as the city’s largest illegal drug marketplace.
Back in 1977, Harold Katz, chairman of that decade’s Blue Ribbon Citizen’s Committee studying downtown development, said members of his group realized that ending homelessness in the region was crucial to attracting new businesses, especially downtown.
“Skid row is the key” to a revitalized downtown, Katz said.
But that effort, along with many others, failed to reduce homelessness significantly.
By 2003, community leaders were touting a new approach. Instead of focusing solely on downtown, they would look at reducing homelessness across Los Angeles County -- believing that only a regional solution involving all communities would be effective.
This is how Bring L.A. Home! was born. Besides Hahn, Bratton, Baca and Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, the 64-member board now includes the mayors of Pasadena, Santa Monica and Long Beach, along with Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), the Rev. Cecil Murray and assorted business leaders and advocates for the homeless.
At the time, Hahn spoke about how the group could achieve historic results.
“We’re not here to say how we can manage the problem better or make it less of a problem, but to come up with a plan to end homelessness,” he said.
But with such a large committee, it was a struggle to stay focused, participants said.
City Councilwoman Jan Perry said that when the group began, she was enthusiastic because it included “a broad cross-section” of leaders. “But I think, as is human nature, they retreated back to their respective constituencies over time.”
Some people, Perry said, “became entrenched in their own agendas and kind of got stuck there.”
Meetings started late and drifted, often taking so long that members would have to leave part-way through. Documents distributed to committee members contained language that many found impenetrable.
After some members butted heads early on, a facilitator was brought in to run meetings.
Hahn and some other members said the group should focus primarily on the long-term homeless. Others argued for an approach that addressed the needs of all types of homeless people at the same time.
The committee quickly found that it could not agree on how many chronically homeless there were.
Previous estimates of those who have been homeless for more than a year -- and who traditionally require more intensive and costly services -- were about 7,500, or about 10% of the homeless population in Los Angeles County.
After several committee members questioned the accuracy of those estimates, the group coordinated a head count of homeless people in the county.
Conducted in January 2005, the count was followed by nearly six more months of number crunching. Preliminary results announced in June indicated about 35,000 chronically homeless in Los Angeles County out of an overall homeless population of 91,000.
Many of those interviewed for this story say the lofty -- some call it unattainable -- goal of eliminating homelessness kept the committee from functioning effectively.
Los Angeles County has a greater homeless population than any other metropolitan area.
The vast geography of the county meant that most of its 88 cities would need to be involved for a plan to succeed.
A draft plan released in April 2004 contained what several committee members called unrealistic objectives -- such as “prevent homelessness” -- without giving enough specifics about how to accomplish them.
“It was laughable,” said Schwartz of Shelter Partnership. “It wasn’t a plan.”
In September 2004, the committee could not muster enough votes to adopt its own 61-page draft framework, which called for building 40,000 units of affordable housing within a decade, among other things.
“This is a grandiose plan,” Mayor Richard Bloom of Santa Monica said at the meeting. “Ending homelessness in 10 years is a big idea, and it needs to rely on a series of general goals that are backed up by specific recommendations.”
Mayoral politics also caused delays, according to several people involved in the committee.
For the first year, Hahn was heavily engaged. But as he battled Villaraigosa for reelection, his interest appeared to fade, they say.
“Given all of the demands of trying to get reelected,” said Bob Erlenbusch of the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness, “it got pushed to the back burner.
“It virtually came to a stop for the most part -- I would say a year,” he said. Erlenbusch’s organization is a co-coordinator of Bring L.A. Home!
With Hahn disengaged, no other prominent political figure pushed to move the committee forward.
When Villaraigosa won election and took office, the committee’s focus seemed to shift again, from Hahn’s preferred focus on the chronically homeless to a broader approach advocated by the new mayor.
The current draft plan -- still being drawn up -- ditches Hahn’s concept and substitutes three large focuses: the chronic homeless, homeless families, and homelessness prevention and systems of care, Erlenbusch said.
The group was also prone to second-guessing.
A survey conducted at an executive meeting last month showed that 54.5% of the respondents thought the committee’s basic mission should be revised, according to notes from the meeting.
At the same session, members debated the organization’s name, how the executive committee and blue-ribbon panels functioned, and even the exclamation point.
Still, BLAH!'s leaders insist that the process is moving forward.
“There has been some degree of concern that it’s taken so long to develop a plan,” said Mitchell Netburn, executive director of the joint city-county Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, one of the coordinating groups. “I think people understand the complexity of what it takes,” he added.
“It’s going great,” Erlenbusch said in an interview this week.
“If you look at plans around the country, most of them are city-based, and most are just sort of broad outlines of plans. The thing that I think is important about the Bring L.A. Home! plan is that it has goals -- and is objective-driven. It’s got clear timelines, with clear responsible parties.”
Erlenbusch said that a writer had been hired to complete the current draft and that he expected to present something to committee members early in 2006 -- almost two years behind schedule.
“The goal that the mayor set,” he said, “was that he would really like it by Valentine’s Day. But more realistically, it will be [out] by the end of February.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Varied Group Tackles Homelessness
Members of the blue-ribbon panel of Bring L.A. Home!
Larry Adamson,* The Midnight Mission
Sue Aebischer, House of Ruth
Richard Alarcon, state senator
Lee Baca,* Los Angeles County sheriff
Rosina Becerra, UCLA chancellor’s office
Richard Benbow,* Community Redevelopment Agency/L.A.
Bishop Charles Blake, West Angeles Church of God in Christ
Richard Bloom,* Santa Monica councilman
Bill Bogaard, mayor of Pasadena
Yvonne Brathwaite Burke,* Los Angeles County supervisor
William J. Bratton, chief of LAPD
Jan Breidenbach, Southern California Assn. of Non-Profit Housing
Bishop J. Jon Bruno, Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles
Elise Buik, United Way of Greater Los Angeles
Carmelita Casal, no affiliation
Mark Casanova,* Homeless Health Care Los Angeles
Kathy Cooper-Ledesma, California Council of Churches
Sister Diane Donoghue, Esperanza Community Housing Corp.
Peter Dreier, Occidental College
Neil Dudovitz, Neighborhood Legal Services
Rabbi Marc Stevens Dworkin, American Jewish Committee
Bob Erlenbusch,* Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness
Jeff Farber, Helpline Youth Counseling
Michael Feuer, Morrison & Foerster
Andrew Friedman, no affiliation
Dora Gallo,* A Community of Friends
Eric Garcetti, Los Angeles councilman
Wendy Greuel,* (vice chairwoman), Los Angeles councilwoman
Stephani Hardy, U.S. Vets
Ted Hayes, Justiceville/Homeless U.S.A.
Antonia Hernandez,* California Community Foundation
Bruce Iwasaki, Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles
Madeline Janis-Aparicio, Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy
Robert M. Levy, Enviro Communications Inc.
Estela Lopez, Central City East Assn.
Mollie Lowery,* LAMP Community (retired)
Martin Ludlow, Los Angeles County Federation of Labor
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony,* Archdiocese of Los Angeles
Antonio Manning* (chairman), Washington Mutual
Rickey Mantley, Los Angeles Community Action Network
Michael Mata, Claremont School of Theology
Rhonda Meister,* St. Joseph Center
Cecil Murray (vice chairman), First AME Church
Mitchell Netburn,* Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority
Owen Newcomer,* Whittier councilman
Fabian Nunez, state assemblyman
Beverly O’Neill, mayor of Long Beach
Jan Perry,* Los Angeles councilwoman
Peklar Pilavjian, Los Angeles United Investment Co.
Susan Rabinovitz,* Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles
Joel Roberts, People Assisting the Homeless
Robert Ross, the California Endowment
Tyrone Roy, homeless advocate
Gilbert Saldate* (vice chairman), Tri-City Mental Health Center
Carol Schatz,* Central City Assn.
Leonard Schneiderman,* UCLA School of Social Welfare
Ruth Schwartz,* Shelter Partnership Inc..
Carol Seiler, the Salvation Army
Tanya Tull,* Beyond Shelter
Paul Vert,* Young’s Holdings Inc.
Antonio Villaraigosa,* mayor of Los Angeles
John Walker, Latham & Watkins
Jennifer Wolch,* USC Center for Sustainable Cities
Zev Yaroslavsky,* Los Angeles County supervisor
Los Angeles Times
* Executive Committee member