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Mayor Tours Temporary Shelter; Protesters Call it ‘Soweto’

June 15, 1987

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Transients began trickling into a fenced-in vacant lot that opened Monday as a temporary camp for those pushed off Skid Row streets by a police crackdown.

A handful of transients had spent the night nearby, but initial response was slow. Shortly after the announced 2 p.m. opening time, only eight people had registered.

″They just try to hide people like us by putting us out here,″ said Charles Worth, 39. ″They should realize that we’re people too.″

Opponents denounced the camp as an American Soweto, referring to the ghetto in South Africa. But the camp’s director, Maj. William Mulch of the Salvation Army, promised to help the homeless get back into the mainstream of society.

″We intend to make this a place where we can get people plugged in to the right social services to eventually alleviate the circumstances that made them homeless,″ Mulch said. ″We don’t want this to be a place where they’re just grouped until they move on.″

The camp, run by the Salvation Army, is intended to house 600 of the city’s homeless in 14 dormitory-style tents equipped with cots. Toilets, showers, pay phones and mail service are available, as well as a free dinner each night. It is to remain open 60 days.

″What you see here is a remarkable exhibit of emergency response to our homeless crisis,″ Mayor Tom Bradley said, hours before the opening of the hastily erected encampment on a lot owned by the Southern California Rapid Transit District.

The 12-acre lot, surrounded by a chain link fence, is in a warehouse and railroad neighborhood on the outskirts of the downtown area, about a half-mile from Skid Row. An adjacent storage yard has a barbed wire fence.

″It’s obviously a temporary solution, but better than forcing people to sleep on the sidewalks of the city,″ the mayor said.

About 200 protesters unfurled a banner across the street denouncing the encampment as ″Soweto U.S.A.″

″It’s a sad day. We’re in mourning,″ said the Rev. Alice Callaghan, an activist on behalf of the homeless and one of the protest organizers.

″This is Mayor Bradley’s gulag camp,″ said Lillie Smith, likening it to Soviet camps for political prisoners. ″He’s trying to politicize on the backs of the homeless. It’s the shame of this generation,″ said Ms. Smith, 61, who said she’s been on the streets for seven years.

Plans for the camp developed quickly after Police Chief Daryl Gates launched an effort to remove the homeless from downtown streets two weeks ago, blaming transients for a rising crime rate and complaints from merchants in the blighted section of downtown.

Estimates of the number of homeless in the city vary widely. A federal study several years ago estimated there were 30,000 homeless in the metropolitan area, a figure Bradley aides said was too high. A study conducted last year for the city’s redevelopment agency put the number sleeping on Skid Row sidewalks at 1,000.

Some of those who work with the homeless cautiously endorsed the project, but said it is just a start.

″Most of the chronically homeless did not just fall through the cracks, they worked their way down there. They need more attention than a general relief check and a hotel voucher,″ the Rev. Mark Holsinger, director of the Los Angeles Mission, said Monday.

Five private security guards will be on duty at the camp at all times and police and paramedics will be on call, said Mulch. Camp rules bar alcohol, drugs and weapons and call on each resident to keep his or her sleeping area clean.

Representatives of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services will be at the campground two days a week, supplemented by mental health, employment, health and legal aid services.

Holsinger lauded the city for providing counseling at the site, but said many of the homeless have severe mental and emotional problems, including drug and alcohol abuse, that make it hard for them to work with the system.

On Sunday night, dozens of transients huddled around campfires outside the unopened camp.

″This should have been done many, many years ago,″ said Kenneth Perry, 52. ″This could lead to people getting jobs.″

But George Fitzgerald, 35, worried about fences and rules.

″It looks too much like a concentration camp,″ Fitzgerald said.

The encampment was planned with the help of officials in Phoenix, Ariz., where a similar operation supported by government and private funds has been sheltering 350 people for three years.

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