By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Taking another tack to break the stalemate that leaves thousands living on downtown sidewalks each night, the L.A. City Council last week unanimously voted to keep emergency winter shelters open for a month past the usual March 15 closure date.
Located in warehouses, armories and industrial buildings around the county, the winter shelters provide safe sleeping for 2,100 homeless people during the coldest months of the year. This marks the first occasion that even a portion of those beds will remain available after the deadline.
The $497,000 in city money will keep the doors open at nine shelters that provide 860 beds each night. About half those beds serve the Skid Row area, and the rest are divided between South and East Los Angeles.
County and state officials did not match the city funds, and the balance of the winter shelters across the county closed for good on Sunday.
The beds serve an obvious need in a city where homeless shelters routinely reach capacity, and where rain and winter temperatures are predicted to last for at least another week. "We turn away 50 to 75 people a night," said Brenda Wilson, executive director at New Image Shelter, which provides hot meals and 325 beds near downtown.
At the same time, the extra beds afford a legal defense for city efforts to push homeless people off the streets through police action. Police sweeps were challenged in February by the American Civil Liberties Union on grounds that homeless people cannot be arrested for sleeping in public when they have no alternative. Since then, the City Attorney's Office began canvassing Skid Row shelter providers to find out if beds are available; when none are, police are advised not to arrest people for sleeping on the sidewalk.
City Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose 9th District includes Skid Row, has championed both the tougher police stance and the new aid to shelters and other services as part of what her office termed "a renewed, aggressive approach to tackle homelessness."
Perry introduced a motion in October for new ordinances against sleeping in public and distributing free meals, though both have stalled due to legal complications. She enlisted the mayor and the chief of police in a drive to clean up the tent and cardboard-box encampments that reach from Main Street to Alameda. And in a phone interview Friday, she described the shelter beds as part of a coordinated strategy: "It's a way to compel people to go in and get help."
In February, Perry pressed the county Board of Supervisors to join hercampaign by extending new funds for the shelters. She turned up the heat at a news conference with Mayor James Hahn Monday, admonishing county supervisors that "It's time to step up to the plate and start acting rather than just talking."
County officials answered on Tuesday, terming Perry's challenge "nonsense." Most funds earmarked by the city and the county actually came from the federal government, they noted, and the county has contributed more local dollars than the city.
Board chair Yvonne Brathwaite Burke asked that a letter be drafted to tell the mayor of the funding details. Informed that Hahn had signed the deal in his former job as city attorney, Burke offered, "Maybe he forgot."
All funds for homeless people in L.A. are channeled through a single, joint-powers agency called the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. And according to executive director Mitchell Netburn, even in the cash-scarce world of homeless aid, money for emergency shelter is especially hard to come by.
Netburn's agency raised more than $48 million from various sources last year, he said, but federal rules specifically bar spending for emergency shelter. "The government has been very clear they want the money going to permanent housing," Netburn explained. "They want to end homelessness for the people they serve," rather than simply extend it.
But that policy fails to address the growing numbers of people living in cars, under bridges or on the street. According to the Rev. Gene Boutilier, a former housing-authority director now working at the L.A. Coalition To End Hunger and Homelessness, there are 10,000 year-round beds at missions and shelters around the county, in addition to the winter shelters, and still the need far outstrips the supply.
That seemed apparent outside the gates of the New Image shelter Monday afternoon, as scores of men waited, along with a few women, for beds available on a first-come, first-served basis. Several said they had jobs but simply couldn't afford lodgings. Jerome Fowler, 48, even had a uniform on from his work as a security guard, but said he needed assistance until his next paycheck. "There's just too many bills," Fowler said.
Brenda Wilson said her outreach staff can help people like Fowler find housing, but only if she has the space to put them up in the first place. "You need year-round beds with case management."
Wilson said she was glad to see the winter shelters extended, but said it was premature to resort to police sweeps, which she termed "immoral, horrible."
"There are certainly not enough beds downtown to accommodate the homeless," Wilson said. "We're just Band-Aiding it."
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