L.A. County denies aid to mentally ill homeless people, advocates say

A homeless encampment underneath the 110 Freeway.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Civil rights lawyers asked the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to change rules that they say illegally and systematically knock mentally ill homeless people off the welfare rolls.

Lawyers from the Disability Rights Legal Center and other groups submitted a report to the board contending that tens of thousands of the county’s mentally ill homeless people are denied meager monthly cash benefits of $221 or dropped from the general relief program because of bureaucratic barriers.

The report argues that the county is violating state and federal disability laws. Civil rights attorney Gary Blasi said lawyers had negotiated unsuccessfully with the county for more than a year and filed the document in a final effort to avoid litigation.

A county spokesman did not respond to messages seeking comment.


The 12-page report said many people with mental disabilities “cannot bear” the long wait times, security procedures and noisy and crowded conditions in county welfare offices. Those with schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder are scared off by security guards and checkpoints, and many are unable to read or follow the stacks of application papers required to sign up, the report said.

Others are dropped for missing deadlines, or are required to work even though their disabilities make them unemployable, the groups said in the report.

Although 30% to 40% of the county’s 44,000 homeless people are seriously mentally ill or developmentally disabled, only 8% receive special assistance from the county to navigate a daunting “labyrinth” of requirements, the report says.

“For example, one person applying for [general relief] was wearing a laminated paper crown, tight golf shorts, a T-shirt that was so small his belly button was exposed, and a different shoe on each foot,” the report said. “Yet no county worker even asked whether he needed help during the visit.


“Though they may seem like mundane annoyances to us, the barriers deter many with mental disabilities from even trying to obtain benefits. Many who do try fail.”

Leland Goley, 47, said he was autistic and suffered anxiety. He was dropped from the general relief rolls after the transmission went out on the van where he sleeps, and he could not pay $35 for his private postal box.

A county welfare clerk, speaking through an opening in a plexiglass window, told Goley his benefits would be restored in five to seven days, but he worried he’d lose his insurance, and possibly his vehicle, in the meantime.

“I don’t put any faith in the system to function,” he said.

The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, the Western Center on Law & Poverty and the law firm Morrison & Foerster are also involved in the case.

Twitter: @geholland

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