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L.A. mayor says city is 'capital of homelessness'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LOS ANGELES -- It was not the sort of chamber of commerce cheer expected from the chief executive of one the nation's sunniest and most tourist-conscious cities.

But Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa of Los Angeles stood before the news media this week and declared unequivocally, "This is the capital of homelessness in America."

The mayor was reacting to a report released Thursday, based on what officials called the most comprehensive census and survey of homelessness in Los Angeles County, that found 88,345 homeless people in the city and surrounding communities.

No other county in the country comes close - the five boroughs of New York have 48,155 homeless people, according to figures from its own census last year reported to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Even if he wanted to, Villaraigosa, six months into his first term, would find it difficult these days to skirt the homeless problem here.

For one, he had made a campaign promise to increase the supply of affordable housing and recently pledged $50 million for a trust fund that has helped finance more than 3,500 units for the poor since 2002.

About 12 percent of the households in the county can afford the median home price, about $500,000.

The Los Angeles County government has allocated $25 million for increased emergency shelters, which advocates for the homeless say are badly needed; there are 18,000 homeless shelter beds, which critics call paltry considering the much higher number of homeless people.

A group of city and county leaders, Bring Los Angeles Home, plans to issue a report on confronting the problem in March, a spokesman for the group said last week. The group's stated goal is to end homelessness within 10 years.

Much soul-searching also came after the Los Angeles police publicly accused several suburban law enforcement agencies last fall of adding to the woes of the downtown neighborhood of Skid Row by dropping off homeless people there.

Around the same time, a front-page series by Steve Lopez, a Los Angeles Times columnist, documenting drug dealing and lewd behavior in Skid Row despite years of promises to clean it up, further galvanized public discussion.

Homeless advocates said they were cautiously optimistic that the tide of events might lead to a decrease in homelessness, having experienced previous spasms of interest that eventually faded. They are waiting to see the extent to which the root causes of homelessness here - high poverty rates and a dearth of affordable housing and mental and drug treatment services - are addressed.

"I want this to be a watershed moment," said Lisa Fisher, director of the Westside Shelter and Hunger Coalition, a consortium of groups aiding the homeless. "How many homeless people are enough to move county, city and community members to action?"

Another advocate, Joel John Roberts, the chief executive of the nonprofit People Assisting the Homeless, said he was not sure whether to take all of the census and survey results as fact. A spokesman for the Department of Housing and Urban Development said all the homeless census reports they received would be reviewed to evaluate their reliability.

"This is the first time in many years that the city of L.A. and county of L.A. are stepping up to the plate and saying we are dealing with this problem," Roberts said.

The new count in Los Angeles hewed close to previous estimates, but advocates for the homeless and government officials said it was important to quantify the population to raise awareness and seek government financing.

The survey was spurred mainly by HUD, which had asked cities and counties to conduct the count. HUD uses the data as a factor in weighing awarding of grants.

Seventy-eight percent of the homeless surveyed in greater Los Angeles said they were living here before they lost shelter. "The perception that homeless people come here from other places has allowed a sense that it is not really our problem," said Mitchell Netburn, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which compiled the report.

It is based on a count in January 2005 of people in shelters, on the streets and other places. In addition, 3,000 homeless people were sampled to project demographic and other trends in the overall population.

The authority surveyed the homeless in 85 of the county's 88 municipalities, counting 82,291 homeless people there, and combined its count with separate censuses taken in the three other cities.

Census takers found the homeless population spread out across the sprawling county, with pockets of homeless in generally affluent communities in Los Angeles like Brentwood and suburban expanses outside the city limits like the San Gabriel and Antelope Valley. The city of Los Angeles had by far the largest homeless population, with 48,103 people.

The report said 49 percent of the population was chronically homeless, meaning they had a physical or mental disability and had been living in a shelter or in and out of them for at least a year. The median age of the homeless was 43, and nearly 39 percent of the homeless were black. Twenty-nine percent were white and 25 percent Hispanic.

Just as politicians sought to emphasize their efforts to resolve the problem, another report, by the National Coalition for the Homeless and National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, was released this week calling Los Angeles among the country's "meanest" cities (ranked No. 18 of 20) in treating its homeless.

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