A Plan to Spread Homeless Countywide

Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles County officials Thursday proposed establishing five regional homeless centers in an effort to reduce “dumping” by hospitals and police agencies in skid row, while spreading out the burden of providing care for homeless people beyond downtown Los Angeles.

The plan marks a significant shift in government policy on homelessness, which until now has concentrated drug rehabilitation services as well as transient shelter beds on skid row. Critics have long said the policy has made downtown a dumping ground for criminals, drugs addicts, mentally ill people and others without homes.

But the proposal is also expected to spark a public debate over whether suburban areas should be -- and are capable of -- taking on a greater role in providing services and shelters for the homeless. The county plan calls for one regional shelter in each supervisorial district but does not specify where.

In the past, communities have opposed efforts to place homeless shelters in residential areas -- one reason why downtown now has the largest homeless population in the western United States.


The plan is “a recognition of what we know to be true: That we have to regionalize the issue,” said Orlando Ward, director of public affairs for the Midnight Mission in downtown.

But some community leaders say the plan could be a hard sell in their neighborhoods.

“It isn’t going to go down well if this city was chosen for one of these centers, and I suspect it will be much the same in other cities,” said Burbank Mayor Jef Vander Borght. “We wouldn’t want to house the county homeless population. We probably represent a hundredth of that population, not a fifth. I hate to sound like I suffer from NIMBYism, but it is unlikely to fit in with the neighborhoods.”

The five proposed facilities are the centerpiece of a long-awaited $100-million effort by the county to improve conditions on skid row.

While the county is focusing on services for the homeless, the Los Angeles Police Department is expected to decide in the next few weeks on a new approach for attacking drug dealing and other crimes on skid row. And Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has set aside $50 million to build new housing for homeless and low-income residents, while state legislators have sponsored measures aimed at halting dumping.

But the county’s plan may end up being the most controversial, because it would disperse homeless services into other communities.

“That will need a lot of leadership ... to get those [centers] sited, because of that issue of ‘Not in My Backyard’ that we all face,” said Ruth Schwartz, executive director of Shelter Partnership, a nonprofit organization based downtown.

The five centers would serve as 24-hour drop-off points where hospital, police and care providers could leave people who need housing. Each facility would provide at least 30 beds for short-term stays, as well as mental health and substance abuse services.

Officials said each center’s goal would be to find long-term shelter within its supervisorial district for those served. The county hopes to encourage creation of such private shelters with grants.

The LAPD has accused about a dozen suburban police agencies of driving homeless people downtown and leaving them on skid row. The Los Angeles city attorney is investigating whether hospitals around the county regularly dump homeless patients there upon discharge.

On Wednesday, Kaiser Permanente apologized after authorities released a videotape showing a patient from the company’s Bellflower hospital being dropped off by taxi and left on the street.

County Chief Administrative Officer David E. Janssen said the new plan was drawn from a score of proposals by all five supervisors to deal with pieces of the homeless problem. The 47-page proposal, he said, represents “the building block. This is not going to solve the problem. But maybe it will be the foundation.”

The board will consider it April 4. The centers would cost a total of about $7 million a year and would probably be on county property. The plan would also:

* Establish an $80-million trust fund, from unallocated county money, to help build emergency, traditional and permanent housing. Some of the fund would also be used for rent subsidies.

* Create a Homeless Family Access Center, designed to move families off skid row by assessing them and swiftly connecting them to services and housing. The center would be part of what the county has labeled a policy of zero tolerance for having families on skid row.

* Establish a homeless court, which would allow transients with outstanding warrants for quality-of-life misdemeanor crimes to have warrants resolved upon completion of a recovery program for mental health or narcotics addiction. County officials say such warrants prevent those people from gaining access to needed social services. Another court would handle cases of individuals with preexisting mental conditions charged with felony drug violations.

* Create a database of affordable rental housing.

Besides hospitals, jail officials have been accused of skid row dumping. Pilot programs would try to help people who would otherwise be homeless upon discharge to get social services, benefits and housing.

Although Janssen said he believes that he has enough votes for the proposal to pass, reaction from the county supervisors’ offices was mixed.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky praised the plan, calling it “a comprehensive and historic engagement on the part of the county on an issue that needs this level of attention and more.”

David Sommers, spokesman for Supervisor Don Knabe, called the proposal “step one,” saying he felt it offered an outline for addressing the issues but not enough specifics.

Tony Bell, a spokesman for Supervisor Mike Antonovich, said he was concerned that the plan costs too much and might take funding from public safety programs.

Even if the supervisors support the plan, the political debate is unlikely to stop there. The five centers would require full environmental impact studies, including public comments.

“My knee-jerk reaction is: not in my city,” said Burbank’s Vander Borght. “It would be very hard to fit it in.”