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Pomona leaders wrestle with a homelessness dilemma: Enforce or assist?

Wayne Ross gets personal items out of his locker built by the city of Pomona for homeless people.
Wayne Ross gets personal items out of his locker built by the city of Pomona for homeless residents.

The bandshell at Pomona’s Ganesha Park is a cozy spot where an acting troupe might perform Shakespeare on a summer night.

But on a brisk January morning, four tents held center stage — nestled around a rusted, 55-gallon drum still warm from a bonfire the night before.

By mid-morning, people stirred and tents came down. A young woman growled at the outreach worker who ventured near.

The scene reflected one day’s uneasy equilibrium in the homelessness drama roiling the eastern Los Angeles County city of 150,000.

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While Los Angeles city and county attempt to conquer the problem with billions of dollars in new taxes for thousands of permanent supportive housing units, Pomona has taken a different tack.

Officials agreed after months of soul-searching on a comprehensive strategy that gives as much weight to enforcement as assistance. And the city is moving swiftly to remove an obstacle to that enforcement — its failure to offer people living on its streets a place to sleep or store their belongings.

Even before the final vote, Pomona built nearly 400 steel lockers — one for every homeless person in the city. Officials then approved the comprehensive plan, as well as $1.7 million to buy land for a temporary shelter with 175 beds.

Los Angeles officials have all but dismissed the idea of new temporary shelters in favor of permanent housing coupled with support services, calling it a more humane and likely more successful strategy for keeping people off the streets.

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In Pomona, the political discourse has leaned more toward concern for residents and merchants.

Many more people are speaking out on behalf of the homeless than for the residents. It’s not fair.
Councilman Rubio R. Gonzalez

“Though I want to be compassionate for the homeless as much as I can, who is speaking out for the residents, the voters, the taxpayers?” Councilman Rubio R. Gonzalez said before voting to approve the homeless plan. “Many more people are speaking out on behalf of the homeless than for the residents. It’s not fair.”

While Pomona’s plan nods to “best practices” and “housing first,” it leaves no doubt that the temporary shelter is key to resuming enforcement of anti-camping laws that were put on hold as the result of a lawsuit.

That can take place “once the city has provided a sufficient number of shelter beds … because there will be a viable option to living in places not meant for human habitation,” the plan says.

Exactly how it will be enforced is still uncertain.

Councilman Robert S. Torres pressed in vain for clarification before voting to approve the shelter.

“So there will be folks who will go to the parks and inform them?” Torres asked Asst. City Atty. Andrew L. Jared. “I’m hoping that by approving this we can literally have folks there encouraging them to take advantage of that.”

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Jared, in an interview, said, “Our intent is to eliminate people living on the streets.”

He said he will soon propose revisions to ensure that city ordinances prohibiting camping and storage of property in public do not violate the civil rights of homeless people.

“Case law has said that you cannot enforce that law unless there is, in fact, a place to go,” Jared said. “We will be creating that place to go and modernizing our no camping, living, sleeping on the street ordinance in order to ensure that unsheltered homelessness is dealt with in Pomona.”

The debate is layered over Pomona’s long record of providing homeless services that are absent elsewhere.

It is the only city in its immediate area with a homeless coordinator — a position established in 2003. Since 1990s it has used federal Housing and Urban Development grants to lease permanent housing for the chronically homeless.

Pomona also contracts with the nonprofit group Volunteers of America to do homeless outreach and operate a winter shelter in the state-owned armory building downtown.

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Church groups pass out food daily and argue at City Council meetings for a humanitarian approach to street people.

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Still, increasing numbers of homeless people have camped in the central business district and in Ganesha Park.

Responding to constituent concerns, the police and public works departments had made a practice of clearing away encampments, causing the occupants to scatter.

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The tension between compassion and compulsion came into sharp focus last spring.

The L.A. pro bono law firm Public Counsel sued on behalf of several Pomona street dwellers, alleging that their personal property, including identification and medications, had been unlawfully seized.

In a settlement, the city agreed to stop taking homeless people’s items until it could provide temporary storage. It also agreed to suspend enforcement of its anti-camping ordinance until it could provide a shelter bed for every homeless resident.

The bureaucracy responded quickly.

While neighborhood opposition stalled similar plans in Los Angeles, Pomona public works crews assembled the 60-gallon lockers in recycled shipping containers adjacent to the winter shelter.

The city resumed cleanups after the lockers opened early in December. A sweep of Commercial Street, two blocks west of City Hall, netted five tons of refuse and ousted dozens of street dwellers.

Acting Public Works Director Meg McWade said the goal was not to force people out, but “basically to help people travel lightly … help them understand if they are going to live this lifestyle how do they pare down to the 60 gallons?”

In January, the City Council took up the comprehensive plan, titled “A Way Home.”

It invoked Mother Teresa and embraced a lofty mission: “We are a compassionate and caring community that wants to take action to assist those living outside and in unstable housing.”

It also acknowledged community angst, citing as one of its primary goals to “balance the needs and rights of homeless persons and the larger community.”

The plan was greeted with raw emotion.

Homeowners complained that the downtown cleanup had pushed more people into Ganesha Park, where their bonfires were visible at night.

Downtown business owners complained of homeless people sleeping in their doorways and scaring customers away.

Others argued that the city’s generosity had prompted neighboring towns to send their homeless people to services in Pomona.

“You’ve created a magnet,” planning commissioner Tomas Ursua said at a public meeting. “If you do something and the other cities have not done it, you’ve set yourself up to be overrun.”

Gonzalez, a teacher who was elected to the City Council in November, said homelessness was constituents’ top issue during the campaign.

“I do not consider the homeless people my family,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t know them. They’re not from here. Some are. Some are not. The majority are not.”

But Councilwoman Ginna Escobar, an activities assistant at Inland Valley Care and Rehabilitation Center in Pomona, was sympathetic.

“I don’t want to just help people who are homeless who are from Pomona,” said Escobar, who was elected in 2010. “I’d rather help anyone who feels safe coming to our city, or feels they have the ability to come to our city because we are helping people.”

Two weeks after approving “A Way Home,” the council approved a site plan for the shelter.

City officials plan to offer comprehensive services at the site, and amenities including an off-leash dog park and a kitchen where charitable groups can distribute their donations.

“Everything there will be oriented to getting people into permanent housing,” said Benita DeFrank, the city’s neighborhood services director.

DeFrank outlined a plan to get the shelter running quickly by erecting a steel-ribbed tent on the 2.61-acre parcel in the city’s eastern industrial area.

But the hope of opening by the end of March, when the winter shelter closes, has proved illusory. Now the goal is December, DeFrank said.

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A few days after the site plan vote, Reggie Clark of Volunteers of America was in Ganesha Park one chilly morning, spreading the word about the storage lockers.

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“Hey, you all know about my lockers, right?” Clark shouted into the bandshell. “Any of you guys using my lockers?”

A woman, nearly weeping, told him she had lost everything in the recent cleanup — her clothes, her shampoo, her hairbrush.

He tried to persuade the woman to go to the winter shelter, telling her, “You can get some clothes, you can get some shampoo, you can get some brushes for your hair.”

She protested she had no transportation. Outreach worker Bruce Chico handed her two bus passes.

Chico said the woman had refused shelter before.

“She wouldn’t do it,” he said.

A few days later, police and public works employees cleared all the tent dwellers from the park.

As spring approached, the park was still a hangout for homeless people. On a warm March afternoon, about a dozen sat in small groups in the picnic area.

But the bandshell was empty, and the steel drum was gone. No tents were in sight.

doug.smith@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATDoug

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