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They’re victims too

ANGELENOS OPENED THEIR HEARTS and wallets to those left temporarily homeless by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. So it seems odd that so little is done to relieve the plight of the thousands of permanently homeless people living among us.

Occasionally, when incidents involving the homeless make the news, public officials in Southern California can be counted on to take action. The latest stir was last week, when two sheriff’s deputies were caught dropping off in downtown L.A.'s skid row a self-proclaimed mentally ill man with a history of arrests. Los Angeles police have suspected for years that other law enforcement agencies have been dumping homeless people downtown. The incident prompted a report from the county Sheriff’s Department and a call from the mayor for an investigation by the city attorney’s office.

When all the probes and reports are completed, it’s possible that some Southern California agencies might be shamed into ending the practice of dumping. That might keep the homeless population slightly less concentrated in skid row and Santa Monica, but it would do nothing to address the real problem.

The Los Angeles County homeless population is estimated at 91,000 at any given time. The majority are too mentally ill or addicted (or both) to hold down a job and support themselves. They sleep in doorways and inside tunnels, living in filthy conditions that make the nightmarish Superdome, where Katrina’s victims were forced to stay in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, almost seem elegant.

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Many people are more sympathetic to hurricane victims because they think that there is an element of choice and personal responsibility to ordinary homelessness, making such people different from those who lost their homes because of a natural catastrophe. But no one chooses to be mentally ill.

There aren’t any easy solutions, not least because some homeless people don’t want to be helped. There have, however, been a host of attempts to reduce the problem; most have failed because of a lack of political will and funding to keep them going.

There is some hope on the horizon. Last November, voters passed Proposition 63, which imposed a 1% levy on taxable incomes over $1 million to pay for mental health services. The “millionaire tax” is an irresponsible funding mechanism, creating a precedent that is rife for abuse. Nonetheless, the $280 million it’s expected to bring to Los Angeles County over the next three years could put a significant dent in the homeless population if spent wisely.

Meanwhile, an array of public and nonprofit officials has been working to complete a long-delayed 10-year plan to end homelessness in L.A. It is now slated for release in February. Doubtless it will contain many good suggestions, but without the political will to combat homelessness, they will be worthless. That means public officials will have to spend at least as much time and energy examining the underlying causes of homelessness as they do probing whether the homeless are being dumped in skid row.

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