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Urban Camp Fails to Attract Homeless

June 16, 1987

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Only about two dozen homeless people took refuge in a dusty tent camp built for 600, and some who stayed there on its opening night said they were coerced into it by the city.

″We’re being shoved in here because they say if you don’t go in you’ll be locked up, if you don’t go in you’ll be harassed,″ said Charles Worth, 39, who checked into the camp Monday night.

The director of the temporary facility said cynicism may have kept the needy away.

″They’ve heard a lot of promises and usually wait and see if something is really going to happen before they believe it’s there,″ said Maj. William Mulch of the Salvation Army.

Plans for the camp developed quickly after police launched an effort to remove the homeless from blighted downtown streets two weeks ago, blaming transients for a rising crime rate and citing complaints from merchants.

The city asked the Salvation Army to oversee the project on the 12-acre lot, which is to be used for two months. About two dozen occupants checked in Monday night, Mulch said.

″The turnout is not really much different than we expected because it’s still a media event,″ Mulch said. ″If you don’t want a camera stuck in your face you’ll wait until the camera goes away.″

Earlier Monday, Mayor Tom Bradley called the camp ″a remarkable exhibit of emergency response″ to the homeless crisis.

But some occupants questioned the city’s motives, and demonstrators outside the camp Monday compared it to black ghettos in South Africa.

About 200 protesters unfurled a banner that read: ″Soweto U.S.A,″ referring to the settlement in the white-ruled country.

″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.

However, one 64-year-old man saw the campground as a blessing.

″It’s a lot safer than where I was last night,″ said the man who identified himself as Mahaprabhu. ″There’s no people to get mad at me and I don’t have to worry about dogs coming after me.″

The lot, surrounded by a chain-link fence, is in an industrial section on the eastern edge of downtown. Dormitory-style tents are equipped with cots, toilets, showers and pay phones. Mail service and a free evening meal is provided.

Mulch vowed to use the camp 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.″

Estimates of the number of homeless in the city vary, with a federal study several years ago saying there were 30,000 in the greater Los Angeles area.

The Salvation Army is spending about $2,000 a day to run the shelter, Mulch said. The city’s share would total about $100,000, Bradley said. The city has applied for $75,000 in state aid for the camp.

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