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The LA Times' homeless forum

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The LA Times held its first publisher's forum last night with an impressive panel gathered to discuss homelessness. LA Times columnist Steve Lopez, Sheriff Lee Baca, Bobby Shriver (Mayor pro tem of Santa Monica), LAPD Chief William Bratton, Lamp Community head Casey Horan and Dr. Marvin Southard, Director of theLA County Department of Mental Health sat in directors chairs as LA Times Editorial Page Editor Andrés Martinez moderated. That's Martinez in the picture. But first we had a nice opening from the Mayor.

It all kicked off when new LA Times publisher Jeff Johnson, who's been on the job for about 8 months, introduced Mayor Villala... Villaya .... Villyaaya... (audience erupts in laughter) Villaraigosa.

The audience was full of community leaders (Gil Cedillo, Jan Perry, former city councilman Ed Edelman, Mark Ridley Thomas, the ACLU's Ramona Ripston) activists, and even a blogger or two. We're sure that most in attendance can pronounce the mayor's name.

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You may have seen it if you were watching KCAL-5 at 11pm last night, when an edited version of the discussion was to broadcast. Sheriff Baca wore a fantastic orange tie; Mayor Villaraigosa's tie was a lovely sherbert-colored lime green.

Antonio's remarks were eloquent. He called for the city not to avert its eyes from the homeless, "one of the gravest moral challenges facing our city."

The issue of homelessness is complex, of course. Some of the elements are mental illness and drug and alcohol addiction — many homeless people have both problems. Then there's affordable housing — not enough of it — and outright poverty. But LA's homeless problem, as Casey Horan outlined it, is essentially one of money. "It's not an intractable problem," she said, "But there's a dire scarcity of resources."

- LA has 18,000 beds for the homess, while there are 82,000 people in need.
- The City of LA and LA County spend $38-$65 million a year on the homeless for those 82,000
- New York has 34,000 homeless and spends $735 million

So Casey Horan was on point. Steve Lopez contributed no more than the stories he'd already written for the paper; if he had nothing else to say, we're not sure he belonged on the stage. Bobby Shriver seemed the least involved person on the panel, but he had undeniable political star power, with his handsome floppy hair and Kennedy demeanor. Dr. Marvin Southard seemed tired. But not Chief Bratton.

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Bratton's focus was clearing the homeless off the streets, which seems a bit oversimplified. Sheriff Baca pointed out that the LA County jail system is the biggest dumping ground for the homeless, and that he had helped leverage funds for the Salvation Army's Bell Shelter for the mentally ill. Baca made a point of saying that he and Bratton are working together (that dumping-in-the-jails statement aside). He looked tired, Sheriff Baca did. He's had a rough couple of weeks.

Jails and shelters aren't the answer du jour, though. The new solution seems to be "supported housing": affordable, permanent housing with wrap-around services, like mental health care, job training, medical care and access to city services. And cooperation, as Bobby Shriver said more than once; what with the City of LA, other municipalities, LA County and the dollars from the state and the Feds, all of which kind of overlap but simultaneously compete, our region hasn't yet fully coordinated efforts to deal with homelessness.

Speaking of dollars, this forum seemed to have a built-in happy ending. Just this week the final papers were signed to bring the first dollars from Prop 63 to LA County. That'll be $90 million a year for services and support for the mentally ill. It's not a complete solution, and Dr. Southard pointed out that a long and detailed planning process had taken place so the dollars could be released (in other words, the money is, roughly, spoken for). But the forum began with "not enough resources" and ended with "hey, we got some resources," which is pretty good news.

A question from Matt Toledo in the audience (publisher of the LA Business Journal, we think): Who, in 10 years, will be seen as having been the champion who ended homelessness in LA? There was a confused Steve Lopez response, and general befuddlement. Finally Bobby Shriver exclaimed "Antonio Villaraigosa!" (pronouncing it correctly), which was the smart, politic answer. But in general, it felt like everyone on the stage was thinking, "uh, not me."

As we walked the block and a half back to the parking lot, we couldn't help notice that nobody from the forum (LAist included) made an effort to help the scruffy homeless man at 2nd and Spring. When it comes to homelessness, "uh, not me" is a very hard mindset to abandon.