When equal isn't fair

AFTER HER 5-YEAR-OLD SON was killed in a car accident, Susan Burton turned to drugs and spent 15 years cycling between jail, friends' couches and living on the streets. She eventually pulled herself back, bought a home and opened it to women in Watts who have nowhere else to turn.

Eight years later, Burton shelters up to 18 homeless women and children in her modest three-bedroom home and a second house down the block that she bought three years ago. The women who stay with her typically are just out of jail, a mental hospital or a drug treatment program. Some leave within weeks; others remain up to two years. "It's a struggle," she said, "but these women aren't so broken they can't be fixed." Hopefully, the same can be said about the process by which Los Angeles ineffectively distributes its already meager homeless-related services.

As visible as the crisis is on skid row, up to 20% of the county's homeless population lives in South Los Angeles and an additional 10% lives in East L.A. Yet communities like these continue to receive disproportionately less relief, when measured against the demand. The result? There is one bed for every seven people who are homeless in South L.A., about half the inventory on the Westside.

Over the last year, the county has offered two rounds of new cash to alleviate homelessness. In the first tranche last summer, it doled out $20 million for emergency shelters and other services, divided evenly between the five supervisory districts regardless of need. This spring, the Board of Supervisors allocated an additional $100 million, but if that's just going to mean $20 million for each district, a historic opportunity to effectively confront a crisis at its source will have been squandered. Supervisors who are allergic to homeless shelters, such as Mike Antonovich, could end up spending millions of dollars on who knows what.

The supervisors deserve credit for coming up with the money in the first place. But dividing resources based on politics is no way to strategically combat a problem based on economics. There is a legitimate tension between taxpayer fairness and need-based spending, and sometimes it makes sense to build shelters far from transient concentrations. But it makes no sense to starve the most affected neighborhoods.

Supervisors should focus on where the homeless come from today, and what populations are most at risk. Otherwise, people like Burton will be busy and overburdened for a very long time.

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