RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Los Angeles County has been called the homeless capital of America. Ninety thousand people live on the streets here in shelters or anywhere they can. Now, two new plans are in the works to deal with the problem.
NPR's Ina Jaffe reports they're not being met with universal enthusiasm.
INA JAFFE reporting:
Stand on the corner of Sixth Street and San Julian and you can see five large shelters offering services to the homeless, mentally ill, and addicted. The street is also crowded with people who need shelter, but have to make do with the sidewalk.
Mr. ANDREW BALES (Director, Union Rescue Mission): This is the most challenging block of San Julian, where I think in one week, three people pass away in the middle of the night from overdoses of drugs.
JAFFE: Andy Bales is the director of the Union Rescue Mission. He calls all the people here, my homeless friends, no matter how many times he's had to turn the other cheek.
Mr. BALES: I said hi to a gentleman over here one night. He punched me right in the jaw. I think just the sheer density of desperate people causes problems.
JAFFE: Bales can rattle off the skid row statistics: how many hundreds each shelter can hold, how many more sleep on the streets each night, the thousands of meals the Mission serve each day, the four hundred registered sex offenders.
Mr. BALES: A woman on the streets here, for two weeks, has a 70 percent likelihood of being raped. And we've just made up our minds to have programming so that our kids are off the street all day. They never hang out and look out on--out on the street.
(Soundbite of child playing in Discovery Center)
JAFFE: Instead, kids staying at the Union Rescue Mission have the Discover Center, a room four floors above the skid row streets. It's full of toys, books, DVDs and computers. Eleven year old Kaliya's(ph) favorite computer game is called Yoshi.
Ms. KALIYA KAYRO(ph): You have to collect, I think, like 10 fruit. And if you collect them without dying, you win.
JAFFE: Fruits, like apples and oranges?
Ms. KAYRO: Yeah.
JAFFE: Kaliya Kayro lives here with her mother Melody Roy(ph). Kaliya has her dad's last name. Their simple room has eight bunk beds. For the past six months, they've shared it with a succession of other moms and kids. All the women are in a special program of classes, both practical and spiritual. Melody calls the Mission a blessing. Though, to hear her describe it, it's somewhat of a mixed blessing.
Ms. MELODY ROY: If it wasn't here, you know how many people would be on the streets, really? It is a blessing, but it's just some of the people that you live with, you have to deal with different attitudes, you know. You have to humble yourself. You change when you come here.
JAFFE: Melody came here after she got laid off from her job, then lost her apartment, and could no longer afford the hotels where she and her kids were staying. Her two youngest are now with their grandmother. Melody points to marks she's made on the wall at the foot of her bed, one line for each of the women she's shared this room with.
Ms. ROY: This is my first time, you know, being homeless, so it took me by surprise, the setting and the different people that I have to deal with. And it's an anger management class all by itself. It is.
JAFFE: No one thinks the Melodies and Kaliyas of this world should be living on skid row. So community leaders have decided to spend some money to fight homelessness on a regional basis. One new plan calls for spreading services to some of the other 87 cities sprawling across L.A. County. It could cost $12 billion over 10 years. Likewise, the County Board of Supervisors plans to spend $100 million right away, setting up emergency shelters outside of skid row. Some local officials are not thrilled. On Public Radio Station KCRW, Mike Touhey, Mayor Pro-Tem of West Covina, said his city is already doing all it can.
Mayor MIKE TOUHEY (Mayor Pro-Tem, West Covina, California): I believe that the supervisor is trying to ghetto-ize the city of West Covina, and trying to go after us and force a giant homeless center onto us, because they're not adequately taking care of their problem.
JAFFE: The Union Rescue Mission has its own plans to move more than 250 women and children off of skid row. It's purchased a former retirement community in the hills of northern L.A. County, 71 exquisitely landscaped acres now called Hope Gardens.
Mr. BALES: Here's our coi pond.
JAFFE: Andy Bales points out a few super-sized members of the goldfish family during a quick tour on a rainy day.
Mr. BALES: We describe this place as a Psalm 23 experience, beside the still water and the green grass, where God can restore the souls of our folks that have been abandoned and harmed. And let's show you the dining room.
JAFFE: Andy Bales needs county approval to open this place. Marlene Raider(ph) and her neighbors are hoping to stop him.
Ms. MARLENE RAIDER: Through the trees you can see the edge of the mountains.
Ms. RAIDER: And right on the other...
JAFFE: From the front porch of her cozy ranch house, Raider explains that a mountain road puts Hope Gardens a couple of miles from her neighborhood, called Cagle Canyon. Inside, where she's joined by some of her neighbors, she explains this is a rural area where many people keep horses.
Ms. RAIDER: I have Flick, Cannon, Cheyenne, Cruiser, Whiskey, and my burro is Bunny.
JAFFE: And the dogs?
Ms. RAIDER: George and Bandit. And I have six cats and a macaw.
(Soundbite of laughter)
JAFFE: Raider says Hope Gardens just wouldn't be a good fit with her tiny community.
Ms. RAIDER: It's not that I object to helping people. I've been a foster parent. I've had kids placed here that came from parents on the streets and on drugs. But it's too big. This is a 71-acre facility. It could house all of skid row up here if they choose to.
JAFFE: Raider's friend, Karen McDivitt(ph) worries that Hope Gardens' residents will be able to wander around wherever they like.
Ms. KAREN MCDIVITT: Will they come over here? We don't know. But it would be very easy for them to come over here. People are at work, and our homes aren't safe anymore.
Ms. MONTANA NIGHTSBRIDGE: And we have already accepted two major dumps out here. We have two shooting ranges.
JAFFE: This is Montana Nightsbridge.
Ms. NIGHTSBRIDGE: And this is one more time where we're going to be--have something foisted on us by the city, in order to have downtown cleaned up.
JAFFE: Andy Bales finds a more sympathetic crowd one evening with residents of nearby Lakeview Terrace. His PowerPoint presentation in a local field house begins with slides of his favorite Bible verses.
Mr. BALES: Love the sojourner, therefore, for you are sojourners in the land of Egypt. So...
JAFFE: He takes questions on everything: traffic, security, the impact on local schools.
Mr. BALES: Yes, Phyllis(ph).
Unidentified Woman: I'd like to ask a question of the people that are here tonight. I think most of the people think it's a worthwhile need to be met. And so, would you raise your hand if you do support it, please? So I could...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Woman: Okay. Thank you.
JAFFE: The support here is nearly unanimous. Andy Bales hopes to win county approval in time to open Hope Gardens for the start of school this fall. But Melody Roy and her daughter Kaliya will not be living there. In the brief time since our interview, Melody found an apartment of her own. It's about a mile, and a world away, from skid row.
Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Los Angeles.