Sometimes while driving around his district, Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon will spot his son on the street, scrounging for food around a Del Taco restaurant.
His 35-year-old son was diagnosed with schizophrenia years before, and prefers to live on the streets, Alarcon said.
"My son is homeless in the San Fernando Valley," Alarcon said. "He is lost in mental illness and we don't know if he is taking his meds."
The councilman revealed his personal struggle Monday during a groundbreaking ceremony of a new, permanent supportive housing complex in the Sunland-Tujunga area for the homeless with mental health needs.
Born out of need and outcry from the community, the Day Street Apartments are being developed by L.A. Family Housing, a non-profit agency and one of the largest affordable housing providers in the county. The apartment units will be built on what is now a vacant, weed-choked lot at 7639 Day St.
When completed in early 2014, the $15 million Day Street Apartments will include 46 units designed to serve the homeless and low-income mentally ill.
Residents will receive free onsite mental health counseling, case management and job support services.
The new building is the kind of project that Alarcon said he
hopes to see more of across Los Angeles.
"Our county is not yet ready to provide the kind of services we still need," Alarcon said. "When you consider the number of those with mental illness who are homeless, (they) have special needs."
Alarcon was joined by Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich and dozens of other city and county housing officials and mental health experts at the building site, who also acknowledged that while Day Street was a step in the right direction, more such projects and programs, as well as state funding to help those struggling with mental illness, are needed.
"Day Street Apartments represents our commitment to provide permanent housing solutions for our community's most vulnerable," said Stephanie Klasky-Gamer, president and CEO of L.A. Family Housing of North Hollywood.
She praised the city, county, the Sunland-Tujunga community and the neighborhood council for recognizing that "the only way to meet the needs of the homeless was to build a permanent solution," she said.
For decades, the homeless have made Sunland-Tujunga their home, especially within the Big Tujunga Wash at the edge of the Angeles National Forest. But after recent police sweeps through the wash to dismantle those encampments, the homeless dispersed to other areas, many to Sunland Park.
The issue escalated over the summer, when residents noticed mattresses and shopping carts accumulating in the park. Parents said they were afraid to take their children there.
Sunland's distance from several social service agencies in downtown Los Angeles also contributed to the problem.
Klasky-Gamer and others noted that the homeless in Sunland-Tujunga stand out from other populations. A majority are born and raised in the area. Many are couples, and most have pets.
The Day Street Apartments will accommodate 14 couples, and also include a dog run.
At first, some Sunland-Tujunga
residents objected to the idea of such a housing project in their neighborhood.
Some, such as Day Street resident Kerry Parker said while he liked the concept of the building, he worried about the extra cars. Day Street is narrow and dead-ends right where the project will be built.
"Where are 40 extra cars going to go?" he wondered.
Joe Barrett, president of the Sunland-Tujunga Alliance, Inc, said there were many questions from the community when Day Street was proposed more than a year ago. But he said the community was impressed with the Palo Verde project in Sun Valley, and with Klasky-Gamer's presentations.
Barrett said he believes 90 percent of the community is now supportive.
"The Alliance was created to fight off bad development like the Home Depot," Barrett said. "This time, we're thrilled to promote something responsible."
Alarcon, whose term ends in June, said he will continue to work on ending homelessness in Los Angeles County. Like Sunland-Tujunga, many communities "sorely need these services" such as the Day Street Apartments.
Such projects may one day be able to reach his son, he said.
"It is the greatest struggle for my wife and I to see our son this way," he said.
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