LOS ANGELES – It was just past dusk in the upscale enclave of Brentwood as a homeless man, wrapped in a tattered gray blanket, stepped into a doorway to escape a light rain, watching the flow of people on their way to the high-end restaurants that lined the street.
Across town in Hollywood the next morning, homeless people were wandering up and down Sunset Boulevard, pushing shopping carts and slumped at bus stops. More homeless men and women could be found shuffling along the boardwalks of Venice and Santa Monica, while a few others were spotted near the heart of Beverly Hills, the very symbol of Los Angeles wealth.
And, as always, San Julian Street, the infamous centre of Skid Row on the south edge of downtown Los Angeles, was teeming: A small city of people were making the street their home in a warm December sun, waiting for one of the many missions there to serve a meal.
At a time when cities across the country have made significant progress over the past decade in reducing the number of homeless, in no small part by building permanent housing, the problem seems intractable in the County of Los Angeles, stretching these days from downtown to the Pacific Ocean.
For national organizations trying to eradicate homelessness, Los Angeles – with its 48,000 people living on the streets, including 6,000 veterans, according to one count – stands as a stubborn anomaly, an outlier at a time when there has been progress, albeit modest and at times fitful, in so many cities.
Its designation as the homeless capital of America, a title that people here dislike but do not contest, seems increasingly indisputable.
In a reflection of the growing concern here, a task force created by the Chamber of Commerce and the United Way of Greater Los Angeles has stepped in with a plan, called Home for Good, to end homelessness here in five years. The idea is to, among other things, build housing for 12,000 of the chronically unemployed and provide food, maintenance and other services at a cost of $235 million a year.
The proposal, based on the task force’s study of what other cities had done, was embraced by political and civic leaders even as it served as a reminder of how many of these plans have failed over the years.
“This is not rocket science,” said Zev Yaroslavsky of the County Board of Supervisors. “It’s been done in New York, it’s been done in Atlanta, and it’s been done in San Francisco.”
Part of the impetus for this most recent flurry of attention is concern in the business and political communities that the epidemic is threatening to tarnish Los Angeles’ national image and undercut a campaign to promote tourism, particularly in downtown, which has been in the midst of a transformation of sorts, with a boom of museums, concert halls, restaurants, boutiques, parks and lofts.
The gentrification has pushed many of the homeless people south, but they can still be seen settled on benches and patches of grass in the centre of downtown.
“If you have a homeless problem, then your sense of security is diminished, and that makes people not want to come,” said Jerry Neuman, a co-chairman of the task force. “It’s a problem that diminishes us in many ways: the way we view ourselves and the way other people view us.”
The governmental structure here, of a county that includes 88 cities and a maze of conflicting jurisdictions, responsibilities and boundaries, has defused responsibility and made it nearly impossible for any one organization or person to take charge.
And Los Angeles is a place where people drive almost everywhere, so there are fewer of the reminders of homelessness – walking around a sleeping person on a sidewalk, responding to requests for money at the corner – that are common in concentrated cities like New York.
“It’s easy to get up in the morning, go to work, drive home and never encounter someone who is homeless,” said Wendy Greuel, the Los Angeles city controller. “I don’t think it’s seeped into the public’s consciousness that homelessness is a problem.”
The homelessness task force offered its plan at a conference that attracted some of the top elected officials here, including Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa and three of the five members of the Board of Supervisors, a notable show of political support.
“We believe that with the release of this plan, we now have a blueprint to end chronic homelessness and veteran homelessness,” said Christine Marge, director of housing for the United Way of Greater Los Angeles.
Yet in a time of severe budget retrenchment, the five-year goal seems daunting. Even though the drafters of the plan say that no new money will be needed to finance it – Los Angeles is already spending more than $235 million a year on hospital, overnight housing and police costs dealing with the homeless – government financing of all social services has come under assault.
“I don’t for a minute think it’s not going to require a tremendous amount of political will to make it happen,” said Richard Bloom, the mayor of Santa Monica. “Do I think it can happen? Yes, because I’ve seen what happens in other cities, like New York City, Denver and Boston.”
Still, Bloom, who said he regularly attended conferences involving officials from other communities, added: “Our numbers are way out of whack with those numbers I hear elsewhere. It’s just so much more enormous and daunting here.”