01/31/2013 06:39 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

LA Homeless Debate Pits City Council Members Mitch Englander & Richard Alarcon Against Each Other

Despite an emotional appeal from a councilman who told of his personal experience with homelessness, the Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday pushed off for 90 days a proposal to try to control illegal group homes operating in the city.

During that time, a task force of city officials and agencies will look into concerns that the proposal will create more homelessness among veterans, the disabled and the elderly.

"This is not about creating more homeless," said Mitch Englander, who drafted the group home proposal. "It is about stopping the warehousing of people. Of cases where we have 30 people living in a garage where there is no running water or toilet facilities. Of places where people have a certain time they can go to the bathroom or use a kitchen. I can't even imagine living like that."

But Englander told the council he did know firsthand the experience of being homeless.

"We're not trying to solve a problem by creating another one," Englander said. "Most people don't know my life story. I was one of those. My family was homeless. We lost our house. My father was a 100 percent disabled veteran. My uncle, after he lost his house, was killed by three gangbangers. That's why I'm here. To try to solve these problems.

"But we can't say we are solving the problem by warehousing people."

Englander, who has been working on the issue for seven years beginning when he was chief deputy to former Councilman Greig Smith, said he found new urgency for the proposal following the shooting deaths of four people living at an unlicensed home in Northridge.

City officials said the proposal is designed to protect single-family residential neighborhoods.

"The city has yet to enact comprehensive regulations since the adoption of the state Community Care Facilities Act adopted in 1973," said Alan Bell, deputy director of the city Planning Department.

The proposed ordinance would make it illegal to have four leases at a property in an area zoned for single-family homes. State-licensed facilities would be exempt.

Councilman Richard Alarcon urged more study of the proposal to ensure it doesn't violate any civil rights.

"This is a difficult process because it's a difficult problem," Alarcon said. "We all get calls about nuisances in our community and we try to respond. But the reason why these are difficult is we have to be careful about trampling on someone's civil rights.

"We have to be careful how we pursue this or we open ourselves up to lawsuits and the loss of federal money."

Mercedes Marquez, who heads the city's Housing Department and worked at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, cautioned council members to take their time in adopting new measures.

A report out last week on community care facilities and local zoning laws indicates the city could be at some legal risk with the proposal, she said.

The proposal brought out more than 500 people on both sides.

Robin Tyler of the North Hills West Neighborhood Council, urged adoption of the measure.

"The people opposing this say it will be bad for seniors, the disabled and veterans," she said. "They say only the wealthy neighborhoods don't want to live with these homes. I live in North Hills West and we are not a wealthy neighborhood.

"This is not about housing the homeless or helping people just out of jail and it's certainly not about sobriety. It is about money and greed."

Opponents of the measure included the United Way and the county Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, among other groups.

Elise Buik, chief executive of the United Way, called the proposal flawed for its impact on housing for the elderly and the formerly homeless, and she warned it would limit facilities to one downtown Los Angeles and South L.A.

Maria Elena Durazo, secretary-treasurer of the county Federation, said the proposal would have a severe impact on working families.

"Especially veterans would be impacted," Durazo said. "They went off to protect our country and they deserve to come back and be able to pull their lives together."

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