Aid­ing—and clamp­ing down on—the home­less

Pomona adds lock­ers, beds as pre­cur­sor to en­force­ment

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Doug Smith

The band shell at Pomona’s Gane­sha Park is a cozy spot where an act­ing troupe might per­form Shake­speare on a sum­mer night.

But on a brisk Jan­uary morn­ing, four tents held cen­ter stage — nes­tled around a rusted 55-gal­lon drum still warm from a bon­fire the night be­fore.

By mid-morn­ing, peo­ple stirred and tents came down. A young woman growled at the out­reach worker who ven­tured near.

The scene re­flected one day’s un­easy equi­lib­rium in the home­less­ness drama roil­ing the east­ern Los An­ge­les County city of 150,000.

While the city and county of Los An­ge­les at­tempt to con­quer the prob­lem with bil­lions of dol­lars in new taxes for thou­sands of per­ma­nent sup­port­ive hous­ing units, Pomona has taken a dif­fer­ent tack.

Of­fi­cials agreed af­ter months of soulsearch­ing on a com­pre­hen­sive strat­egy that gives as much weight to en­force­ment as as­sis­tance. And the city is mov­ing swiftly to re­move an ob­sta­cle to that en­force­ment — its fail­ure to of­fer peo­ple liv­ing on its streets a place to sleep or store their be­long­ings.

Even be­fore the fi­nal vote, Pomona built nearly 400 steel lock­ers — one for every un­shel­tered home­less per­son in the city. Of­fi­cials then ap­proved the com­pre­hen­sive plan, as well as $1.7 mil­lion to buy land for a tem­po­rary shel­ter with 175 beds.

Los An­ge­les of­fi­cials have all but dis­missed the idea of new tem­po­rary shel­ters in fa­vor of per­ma­nent hous­ing cou­pled with sup­port ser­vices, call­ing it a more hu­mane and likely more suc­cess­ful strat­egy

for keep­ing peo­ple off the streets.

In Pomona, the po­lit­i­cal dis­course has leaned more to­ward con­cern for res­i­dents and mer­chants.

“Though I want to be com­pas­sion­ate for the home­less as much as I can, who is speak­ing out for the res­i­dents, the vot­ers, the tax­pay­ers?” Coun­cil­man Ru­bio R. Gonzalez said be­fore vot­ing to ap­prove the home­less plan. “Many more peo­ple are speak­ing out on be­half of the home­less than for the res­i­dents. It’s not fair.”

While Pomona’s plan nods to “best prac­tices” and “hous­ing first,” it leaves no doubt that the tem­po­rary shel­ter is key to re­sum­ing en­force­ment of anti-camp­ing laws that were put on hold as the re­sult of a law­suit.

That can take place “once the city has pro­vided a suf­fi­cient num­ber of shel­ter beds ... be­cause there will be a vi­able op­tion to liv­ing in places not meant for hu­man habi­ta­tion,” the plan says.

Ex­actly how it will be en­forced is still un­cer­tain.

Coun­cil­man Robert S. Tor­res pressed in vain for clar­i­fi­ca­tion be­fore vot­ing to ap­prove the shel­ter.

“So there will be folks who will go to the parks and in­form them?” Tor­res asked As­sis­tant City Atty. An­drew L. Jared. “I’m hop­ing that by ap­prov­ing this we can lit­er­ally have folks there en­cour­ag­ing them to take ad­van­tage of that.”

Jared, in an in­ter­view, said, “Our in­tent is to elim­i­nate peo­ple liv­ing on the streets.”

He said he will soon pro­pose re­vi­sions to en­sure that city or­di­nances pro­hibit­ing camp­ing and stor­age of prop­erty in pub­lic do not vi­o­late the civil rights of home­less peo­ple.

“Case law has said that you can­not en­force that law un­less there is, in fact, a place to go,” Jared said. “We will be cre­at­ing that place to go and mod­ern­iz­ing our no camp­ing, liv­ing, sleep­ing on the street or­di­nance in or­der to en­sure that un­shel­tered home­less­ness is dealt with in Pomona.”

The de­bate is lay­ered over Pomona’s long record of pro­vid­ing home­less ser­vices that are ab­sent else­where.

It is the only city in its im­me­di­ate area with a home­less co­or­di­na­tor — a po­si­tion es­tab­lished in 2003. Since the 1990s it has used fed­eral Hous­ing and Ur­ban Devel­op­ment grants to lease per­ma­nent hous­ing for the chron­i­cally home­less.

Pomona also con­tracts with the non­profit group Vol­un­teers of Amer­ica to do home­less out­reach and op­er­ate a win­ter shel­ter in the state-owned ar­mory build­ing down­town.

Church groups pass out food daily and ar­gue at City Coun­cil meet­ings for a hu­man­i­tar­ian ap­proach to street peo­ple.

Still, in­creas­ing num­bers of home­less peo­ple have camped in the cen­tral busi­ness dis­trict and in Gane­sha Park. In 2016, the most re­cent count, 689 home­less peo­ple were recorded in the city. Of those, 366 were liv­ing on the streets, the rest in shel­ters and other short­term hous­ing.

Re­spond­ing to con­stituent con­cerns, the po­lice and pub­lic works de­part­ments had made a prac­tice of clear­ing away en­camp­ments, caus­ing the oc­cu­pants to scat­ter.

The ten­sion be­tween com­pas­sion and com­pul­sion came into sharp fo­cus last spring.

The L.A. pro bono law firm Pub­lic Coun­sel sued on be­half of sev­eral Pomona street dwellers, al­leg­ing that their per­sonal prop­erty, in­clud­ing iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and med­i­ca­tions, had been un­law­fully seized.

In a set­tle­ment, the city agreed to stop tak­ing home­less peo­ple’s items un­til it could pro­vide tem­po­rary stor­age. It also agreed to sus­pend en­force­ment of its anti-camp­ing or­di­nance un­til it could pro­vide a shel­ter bed for every home­less res­i­dent.

The bu­reau­cracy re­sponded quickly.

While neigh­bor­hood op­po­si­tion stalled sim­i­lar plans in Los An­ge­les, Pomona pub­lic works crews as­sem­bled the 60-gal­lon lock­ers in re­cy­cled ship­ping con­tain­ers ad­ja­cent to the win­ter shel­ter.

The city re­sumed cleanups af­ter the lock­ers opened early in De­cem­ber. A sweep of Com­mer­cial Street, a few blocks from City Hall, net­ted five tons of refuse and ousted dozens of street dwellers.

Act­ing Pub­lic Works Di­rec­tor Meg McWade said the goal was not to force peo­ple out, but “ba­si­cally to help peo­ple travel lightly … help them un­der­stand if they are go­ing to live this life­style how do they pare down to the 60 gal­lons?”

In Jan­uary, the City Coun­cil took up the com­pre­hen­sive plan, ti­tled “A Way Home.”

It in­voked Mother Teresa and em­braced a lofty mis­sion: “We are a com­pas­sion­ate and car­ing community that wants to take ac­tion to as­sist those liv­ing out­side and in un­sta­ble hous­ing.”

It also ac­knowl­edged community angst, cit­ing as one of its pri­mary goals to “bal­ance the needs and rights of home­less per­sons and the larger community.”

The plan was greeted with raw emo­tion.

Home­own­ers com­plained that the down­town cleanup had pushed more peo­ple into Gane­sha Park, where their bon­fires were vis­i­ble at night.

Down­town busi­ness own­ers com­plained of home­less peo­ple sleep­ing in their door­ways and scar­ing cus­tomers away.

Oth­ers ar­gued that the city’s gen­eros­ity had prompted neigh­bor­ing towns to send their home­less peo­ple to ser­vices in Pomona.

“You’ve cre­ated a mag­net,” plan­ning com­mis­sioner To­mas Ur­sua said at a pub­lic meet­ing. “If you do some­thing and the other cities have not done it, you’ve set your­self up to be over­run.”

Gonzalez, a teacher who was elected to the City Coun­cil in Novem­ber, said home­less­ness was con­stituents’ top is­sue dur­ing the cam­paign.

“I do not con­sider the home­less peo­ple my fam­ily,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t know them. They’re not from here. Some are. Some are not. The ma­jor­ity are not.”

But Coun­cil­woman Ginna Es­co­bar, an ac­tiv­i­ties as­sis­tant at In­land Val­ley Care and Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Cen­ter in Pomona, was sym­pa­thetic.

“I don’t want to just help peo­ple who are home­less who are from Pomona,” said Es­co­bar, who was elected in 2010. “I’d rather help any­one who feels safe com­ing to our city, or feels they have the abil­ity to come to our city be­cause we are help­ing peo­ple.”

Two weeks af­ter ap­prov­ing “A Way Home,” the coun­cil ap­proved a site plan for the shel­ter.

City of­fi­cials plan to of­fer com­pre­hen­sive ser­vices at the site, and ameni­ties in­clud­ing an off-leash dog park and a kitchen where char­i­ta­ble groups can dis­trib­ute their do­na­tions.

“Ev­ery­thing there will be ori­ented to get­ting peo­ple into per­ma­nent hous­ing,” said Benita DeFrank, the city’s neigh­bor­hood ser­vices di­rec­tor.

DeFrank out­lined a plan to get the shel­ter run­ning quickly by erect­ing a steel­ribbed tent on the 2.61-acre par­cel in the city’s east­ern in­dus­trial area.

But the hope of open­ing by the end of March, when the win­ter shel­ter closes, has proved il­lu­sory. Now the goal is De­cem­ber, DeFrank said.

A few days af­ter the site plan vote, Reg­gie Clark of Vol­un­teers of Amer­ica was in Gane­sha Park one chilly morn­ing, spread­ing the word about the stor­age lock­ers.

“Hey, you all know about my lock­ers, right?” Clark shouted into the band­shell. “Any of you guys us­ing my lock­ers?”

A woman, nearly weep­ing, told him she had lost ev­ery­thing in the re­cent cleanup — her clothes, her sham­poo, her hair­brush.

He tried to per­suade the woman to go to the win­ter shel­ter, telling her, “You can get some clothes, you can get some sham­poo, you can get some brushes for your hair.”

She protested she had no trans­porta­tion. Out­reach worker Bruce Chico handed her two bus passes.

Chico said the woman had re­fused shel­ter be­fore.

“She wouldn’t do it,” he said.

A few days later, po­lice and pub­lic works em­ploy­ees cleared all the tent dwellers from the park.

As spring ap­proached, the park was still a hang­out for home­less peo­ple. On a warm March af­ter­noon, about a dozen sat in small groups in the pic­nic area.

But the band­shell was empty, and the steel drum was gone. No tents were in sight.

Gina Fer­azzi Los An­ge­les Times

POMONA of­fi­cials ap­proved $1.7 mil­lion to buy land for a 175-bed tem­po­rary shel­ter. Above, Out­reach Di­rec­tor Reg­gie Clark in Jan­uary tries to con­vince Heather Davis to sleep in a shel­ter at night, not in the park.

Pho­to­graphs by Gina Fer­azzi Los An­ge­les Times

POMONA IS the only city in its im­me­di­ate area with a home­less co­or­di­na­tor. Above, a hot lunch is served to home­less peo­ple in Jan­uary at Op­er­a­tion Warm Heart.

LAST YEAR, 689 home­less peo­ple were recorded in Pomona. Above, Wayne Ross, 56, gets items out of his locker, one of hun­dreds built by the city for the home­less.

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