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County’s homeless plan hits skids

Times Staff Writer

More than a year after Los Angeles County supervisors unveiled a bold $100-million initiative that included opening regional shelters for the homeless, officials have quietly shelved that element because communities feared the centers would draw people from downtown’s skid row.

Instead, the county has shifted its focus from building five so-called stabilization centers to supporting a host of smaller programs. About two-thirds of the money designated for a couple of dozen homeless prevention projects remains unspent.

The stabilization center concept “hasn’t been killed at all yet,” said Lari Sheehan, the county deputy chief executive who has coordinated much of the county’s homeless prevention work. But “it became very, very obvious very quickly that these dollars are only going to go to good work when they work with the community and [communities] decide what they need. . . . We can’t tell communities what to do.”

Retired Chief Administrator David Janssen proposed creating a homeless services center in each of the five supervisors’ districts. Each was to have about 40 short-term beds and be staffed by workers from the county’s social services, mental health and health services departments. He described them as sites where hospitals and law enforcement agencies could place some of the county’s estimated 90,000 homeless people while caseworkers connected them with housing and other kinds of aid.

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At a time when public attention was particularly focused on how the city of Los Angeles was attempting to clean up its skid row downtown, the supervisors approved the countywide initiative in April 2006, with Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky labeling the effort a “historic investment.”

West Covina officials feared the county might simply try to expand the city’s existing homeless center, which provides services for several hundred people living on the streets there. West Covina wasn’t interested in becoming “the discarding place for other homeless [from] other communities,” said Mayor Mike Touhey. “They were trying to put a homeless center in the center of our downtown that we’re trying to revitalize.”

It was a lesson county officials learned the hard way: The “county-centric kind of approach -- that will not fly,” said Nick Ippolito, a deputy who works on homeless issues for Supervisor Dan Knabe.

Over the last 18 months, the idea of regional centers has been replaced by a more grass-roots effort to talk with community leaders and local groups about what they view as a more acceptable way to combat homelessness locally.

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Los Angeles County “is so big, you have to customize services and programs” for each neighborhood, said Louisa Ollague, a senior deputy for Supervisor Gloria Molina.

The $7.1 million allocated for the centers is going to each district for customized homeless efforts. Knabe and Molina set aside more than $1 million combined for a study that will analyze the homeless population in the gateway cities of South Los Angeles, coordinated by a group of local leaders. Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who voted against the initial $100-million plan, prefers directing financial aid to established programs.

“Rather than some giant entity declaring where and when and how this is going to work, we believe it’s more effective to work with people on the ground level,” said Antonovich spokesman Tony Bell. Bell cited the success of the Union Station Foundation in Pasadena, which provides an array of housing and other services to homeless people, and is funded in part by county money.

But Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke, who represents a dense, largely low-income area with 16,000 homeless, is still hoping to create a regional aid center, said Miriam Long, a Burke deputy. “We’re going to have one,” Long said. “It’s just a matter of where.”

City officials launched similarly ambitious plans to reduce homelessness, with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa spending $150 million over the last three years to develop affordable housing with accessible social services. But while the city’s year-old police crackdown on the sidewalks of skid row has sharply reduced crime in the downtown area, it has also pushed people farther from the aid centers concentrated there.

The county is working to enhance services for the homeless countywide, including:

Establishing a court where judges hear misdemeanor cases involving homeless people.

Helping them find housing and money to cover rent and moving costs.

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Offering social service aid to people leaving hospitals or jails.

Providing relocation experts to help families move off skid row.

The county’s work has produced some successes: A $5.7-million project to get skid row families into stable housing has moved 292 families off the streets.

County officials are sifting through about 200 proposals from private social service organizations hoping for a share of the $32 million earmarked for local homeless prevention efforts. The money is expected to be disbursed early next year -- nearly two years after supervisors approved the plan.

County officials acknowledge that the process has been lengthy but emphasize the importance of deliberation in choosing how to spend the money.

“Many of these are pilot projects,” Sheehan said. “When you haven’t done it before and you don’t have a cookie cutter to apply, it makes it very difficult.”

The city and county recently began collaborating more closely to move homeless people off the streets; in the past, city-county communication focused more on defusing crises rather than planning for the future, Ollague said.

“We made a mistake in thinking that it was going to be easy once the money was identified,” Long said. “The hard part is to come up with the ideas.”

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In spite of the delays, advocates for the homeless prefer the thoughtful approach: “Should funding just be thrown out there onto the streets in the hopes that it’ll do some good? No,” said Tanya Tull, president and founder of Beyond Shelter, a Los Angeles nonprofit that helps connect people with permanent housing.

Tull gives the county high marks for “focusing time, energy and much-needed money” on what was long an invisible issue. But, echoing the worry of homeless prevention organizations around the region, she said $100 million is just “a drop in the bucket to what is needed.”

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susannah.rosenblatt@ latimes.com


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