Broken L.A.

Jay Levin wouldn’t dispute the biblical pronouncement that the poor will always be with us. What bothers him more is that we aren‘t ”with“ the poor -- that geographical space has distanced most Angelenos from even an awareness of poverty. And never before, he argues, have we had so many of the wealthy with us -- who could and would help if they could just get connected.

For those reasons, says Levin, it’s time for a share-the-prosperity campaign linking the resources of the well-off Westside (and other comfortable corners of L.A. County) with the growing pockets of poverty and the social agencies fighting hunger, homelessness and other needs there.

The goal, in Levin‘s view, is not so much to transfer funds from the pocket of one L.A. to the other, but to transfer talent, skills and moral support to community-based groups coping with the problems of the poor or defending their interests in the political arena.

This is the idea behind the ”Sharing With the Other L.A.“ conference, to begin at 1 p.m. Sunday, February 25, at University Synagogue in Brentwood, featuring columnistcommentator Arianna Huffington, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and speakers from a dozen poverty-relief organizations. A panel of mayoral candidates will present their ideas about improving the quality of life for poorer Angelenos. But it’s not just a teach-in, explains Lila Garrett, president of Southern California Americans for Democratic Action (co-host of Sunday‘s event). It’s also an opportunity fair -- where you can find out what‘s being done to combat Southland poverty and find a role for yourself in the fight.

Levin, founding editor of the L.A. Weekly, has swung close to both economic poles in his own life and has watched the gap between them widening year by year. The need for a public-awareness campaign became clear to him from two directions. First came the fallout from welfare reform: ”Six months after it kicked in, my friends at agencies were telling me what a nightmare it had created, but the media was either ignoring the impact of this gigantic policy shift -- or getting it wrong,“ he says. The second stimulus was through interaction with delinquent youths at the county-run Camp Kilpatrick, where he volunteered to teach in a six-month ”life mastery“ program: ”I saw how little difference it made what lessons they learned there,“ he says, ”when they were going back into neighborhoods with no resources to apply them. After 25 years of constant cutbacks from Carter through Clinton, most of the ’bootstraps‘ had been pulled out of the community.“

First through informal discussions, and then in several meetings arranged by the Liberty Hill Foundation, the idea germinated for a systematic effort to change attitudes about the poor among a public seemingly assured that prosperous times had lifted all boats -- and to mobilize citizen action on their behalf. ”People were shocked,“ says Levin, ”to learn that 33 percent of the children here live under or just barely above the poverty line, a paycheck or relief check away from being on the street. They couldn’t believe that, in this supposedly booming economy, there were more than five times as many applicants on unemployment or public assistance as there were job openings.“ Though United Way declared that the situation in L.A. is the most ”precarious“ it has been since the Great Depression, with malnutrition and hunger a widespread reality, almost no one, with the exception of poverty groups, spoke up against social-service cuts threatened by the county Board of Supervisors.

Some of the city‘s leading anti-poverty warriors -- including Bob Erlenbusch, longtime activist with the L.A. Coalition To End Hunger and Homelessness -- are hopeful about Sunday’s meeting and the broader campaign to involve the community in issues of mental health, substance abuse and indigent health care. Gilda Haas, director of Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, says her group -- which has been campaigning for better bank access so the poor aren‘t gouged by check-cashing outlets, and also for the interests of residents affected by the Figueroa-corridor projects -- can use many kinds of help: ”Researchers, people with some legal training, anyone who’s articulate or who likes people can do interviews or outreach.“

Levin is convinced that once people learn the facts, they will be moved to take action. ”Polls show 71 percent consider helping the poor to be a very important obligation,“ he says. ”If only 7 percent actually followed through, they could make a tremendous difference.“

The event is from 1 to 6 p.m. Sunday at the University Synagogue, 11960 Sunset Blvd., Brentwood, just west of the 405 freeway. For information, call (323) 852-9190.


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