Promising a new war on poverty in hard-hit Los Angeles

In the Promise Zone in LA, there’s a glaring need for help amid some of the worst poverty in California

Los Angeles could receive up to $500 million over 10 years to address poverty that strikes such areas as downtown L.A.

LOS ANGELES — Gleaming new fancy hotels and skyscrapers and sprawling complexes are under construction along Hollywood and Sunset boulevards, glaring signs of a rebounding economy.

But on the streets, more homeless are huddled in doorways and lines are getting longer at food banks.

This city of stark contrasts is in a county with the highest poverty rate in California, at 18 percent, according to government statistics. But analysis that takes into account the rising cost of housing here puts the county's poverty rate at a staggering 27 percent.

So the news from the White House today, one day after the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's launch of the War on Poverty, that a broad swath of Los Angeles will be designated a "Promise Zone" and receive preferential status for federal grants was warmly but cautiously received.

"It is great news," said Michael Flood, chief executive of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. "Like everything, we'll see how it's administered."

The Promise Zone designation will also target Philadelphia, San Antonio, southeastern Kentucky and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Fifteen more will be announced in the next three years.

In Los Angeles, the zone will stretch from the densely populated, mostly Hispanic Pico-Union district through Westlake, Koreatown, East Hollywood and Hollywood. About 35 percent of the 165,000 people who live in these neighborhoods live in poverty, said Dixon Slingerland, executive director of the Youth Policy Institute. That's up from under 30 percent before the recession. In some areas, 100 percent of youths are poor.

The Promise Zones will be able to access grants across 14 federal agencies, from transportation and health care to public safety and education. The program is modeled after a project that proved successful in Harlem.

"We'll have competitive preference to access these resources," said Slingerland, whose nonprofit organization has been awarded three White House initiatives centered on poverty and neighborhood revitalization.

Click for the latest news and analysis on the War on Poverty

Over the 10-year span of the initiative, Los Angeles could receive about $500 million.

"It's a really good day," he said.

Los Angeles needs all the help it can get. The recession took a brutal toll on the region. The unemployment rate in the Los Angeles metropolitan area has finally dropped below double digits but, at 8.5 percent, is still much higher than the nation as a whole at 7 percent.

There has been a big increase in demand for food assistance. The volume of food distributed in 2013 was 70 percent higher than before the recession, said Flood, of the regional food bank.

"And that food is going to new people, people who had never been in a food line before," he added. "It's just pushed a lot more people into a situation where they struggle to meet their basic needs."

The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank serves 670 nonprofit organizations, but since the recession, 900 agencies are on the waiting list because of rising need in their communities. Much of the increased demand comes from suburban areas that had not experienced high rates of poverty before.

St. Vincent de Paul Church is in the heart of the Promise Zone. Food — canned goods, milk, cereal — is distributed four days a week. On Thursday, food is doled out at 9 a.m., but people show up as early as 7:30 a.m. and wait until they get their two bags of food, said Sister Maryanne O'Neill.

"We see more families," she said. "We do have a lot of single people, older folks who live by themselves, people who are just barely making it on government money ... We have new people come in almost on a daily basis."

The cost of housing has put more people in a bind.

"It's terrible here," O'Neill said. "People pay $400 a month for a single room with no bathroom."

The Promise Zone initiative will help, but, ironically, many have slipped below the poverty level because of cuts in federal aid, Flood said.

"Federal policy is critically important," he said. "There have been cuts in the food stamp program. If a family is already having a hard enough time and is losing on average 20 meals (a month), it’s a big deal."

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