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Our View: No end in sight for homeless battle

Posted: March 22, 2009 1:03 a.m.
Updated: March 22, 2009 4:55 a.m.
In the "you take them - no, you take them" battle between Santa Clarita and Los Angeles over homeless people, both sides reached an impasse, but it was only temporary.

In the end, Los Angeles won.

It all started in late 2004 when nobody in Santa Clarita seemed to be able to find a suitable place for a winter emergency homeless shelter.

It wasn't for lack of trying. City officials and homeless shelter operators worked diligently with business leaders to find property where out-of-luck men and women could land overnight without engendering the fear and loathing of neighboring homeowner associations.

With Santa Clarita's growth, it's getting more and more difficult to find a place in the middle of nowhere that's still close enough to public transportation services for shelter clients to get to work or scour the valley for a job every morning.

By 2004, there was apparently no such place. A location was identified but the City Council refused to sign off because the opposition was just too loud.

Homeless shelters are a NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) issue. For years, volunteers from the nonprofit Santa Clarita Community Development Corp. had been operating a homeless shelter during the four coldest months, but getting there was always an agonizing process.

If it's November, it must be time for one neighborhood or another to fire off letters to The Signal and besiege City Hall - never mind that the CDC ran a tight ship and never drew many police calls.

From a public relations standpoint, it didn't help that the shelter always seemed to wind up in Canyon Country. On the whole, Canyon Country doesn't mind hosting it now and again, but why can't it ever go in Valencia? Is Valencia too good? Is the City Council in Newhall Land's pocket? Nothing grows quicker than a good conspiracy theory.

So the council decided that instead of housing our own homeless overnight, the city would pay for bus service to the Sylmar Armory.

Well, if you weren't here then, you can only imagine the reaction of the politicians at L.A. City Hall.

Santa Clarita was shipping its homeless population - all 167 of them - to Los Angeles.

The L.A. newspapers and TV stations were all over it.

It didn't matter to the L.A. media - or more likely, they didn't understand - that the governance of homeless services in Los Angeles County is divided into regions, and that Santa Clarita is in the same region as Sylmar.

All that seemed to matter, at least to certain L.A. politicians, was the opportunity to grab a headline.

The following year, the county homeless authority wanted to put the shelter in the parking lot of the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic. Castaic residents came unglued. They already have thousands of inmates in their backyards; now they've got to take the valley's homeless population, too?

In sailed Supervisor Mike Antonovich like a knight in shining armor: OK, Santa Clarita (we're paraphrasing him), you can use the county public works yard off Golden Valley Triangle. It's a perfect location in the center of the city next to nobody, yet close enough to public transportation.

"But only this once."

Once turned into twice, and this time he really meant it. After all, the county has public works stuff to do there.

So Antonovich assembled a broad-based task force of city and county officials, local business leaders, town council representatives, a school superintendent and other community activists to develop a long-lasting regional approach to the "location" problem.

The solution was to share the joy and spread the homeless shelter around: three winters next to the fire station on Golden Valley Road (two winters are behind us now), followed by three winters off Drayton Street in the Saugus Industrial Park, followed by three winters in the jail parking lot, for a total of nine winters - six in the city and three in the unincorporated county, roughly mirroring the general population spread.

So far, the plan has worked. It's been all quiet on the homeless front, and theoretically, we shouldn't have to deal with the location problem again before Antonovich retires. (No, we have no knowledge that's ever going to happen.)

But that just wasn't good enough for some inner-city L.A. politicians who don't know the difference between Skid Row and Golden Valley Road.

While the Santa Clarita Valley was hard at work coming up with its own solution to its own homeless problem, the L.A. politicians were feverishly devising their own plan to trump the wishes of the fine residents of Santa Clarita.

Enter Gil Cedillo, the East L.A. assemblyman-turned-senator who still wants to give driver's licenses to illegal aliens.

Using Santa Clarita in 2004 as an example of how the system is broken, Cedillo floated state legislation that would force every community in California to count its homeless population and shelter them - without any public hearing and without any choice by the local City Council or Board of Supervisors.

His bill passed on a party-line vote (Democrats yes, Republicans no), but Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed it, saying that while the "intentions of this bill are laudable ... his measure would preclude a local government from considering the overall needs and concerns of its community, (and the bill) denies the impacted population groups" - i.e., the neighbors - "the right to have their voice(s) heard."

He said the legislation assumes every community needs a homeless shelter (which may or may not be true) and that any location would be suitable (which it isn't).

Cedillo just wouldn't let it go.

He came back in 2007 with SB 2, basically the same bill with a few tweaks.

Again it passed along party lines, but this time, Schwarzenegger signed it.

The new law gave cities an ultimatum: Either designate certain special zones where homeless shelters - including permanent, year-round homeless shelters, as well as transitional and supportive housing - would be allowed "by right," without a public hearing or a by-your-leave from the City Council and the community or the state will do it for you and let homeless shelters go anywhere in your city.

The date came and went. Technically any nonprofit that wants to operate a homeless shelter can do so pretty much anywhere in Santa Clarita.

But that's just a temporary scenario, the stick that whacks the city on the head if it doesn't bite the carrot.

The city is biting the carrot, lest we have an all-out war on City Hall when a homeless shelter pops up in the middle of Canyon Country.

The city reassembled Antonovich's old homeless shelter task force to discuss zones where homeless shelters would and wouldn't be allowed, in accordance with the new law. (Disclaimer: Leon Worden, a member of The Signal's editorial board, serves on the task force.)

The task force reviewed the locations suggested by city staff and recommended buffer zones around schools and residential neighborhoods.

The two designated areas - or three, if you count the Rye Canyon Business Park separately - are the Valencia Industrial Center and the Centre Pointe Business Park, with buffers around public and private schools and around Centre Pointe's residential neighbors.

The organizations that represent businesses in the industrial center - the Valley Industrial Association and the SCV Chamber of Commerce - have endorsed the plan, as has Centre Pointe developer Larry Rasmussen, who was on the original task force and has supported the homeless shelter in the back yard of his property these past several years.

The Planning Commission signed off last month, and on Tuesday, the "homeless shelter overlay zone" goes before the City Council.

For now, it's all just procedural. The SCV's nine-year winter homeless shelter plan stays on track.

But one thing is fairly certain: The homeless debate isn't over. Just when you think you've solved your own problem, someone always comes along to create a new one for you.


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