LOS ANGELES -- "Look out there," Tracy LaMar gestured toward the open flap of his tent in Los Angeles' Urban Campground for the Homeless. "You don't see many old, broke-down winos, you see a lot of young people and a lot of people with kids."
LaMar, 51, moved into the streets when his wife died two years ago, and his observation is precisely what worries social workers and city and county officials here: Los Angeles' homeless population is growing, and growing younger, with families comprising an ever larger percentage. Official estimates range from 5,000 to 35,000 homeless in the city and county; the mayor's office puts the number at 30,000.
The city's short-term measures to house its homeless have drawn interest from city officials nationwide and criticism from advocacy groups for the homeless.
At the center of the controversy is its "urban campground," opened June 15 as a temporary shelter after police conducted several sweeps of large sidewalk encampments on downtown's skid row.
It sits on a bleak 12-acre dirt lot amid warehouses and freight yards east of downtown, where it attracted its capacity of 600 people, including about 50 families, within several weeks and has remained full ever since. There are showers, a trailer full of donated clothes, lockers and pay phones.
Salvation Army workers are on duty at the gate around the clock, and security officers hired by the city surround the fenced camp. Residents and visitors are frisked before entering.
A second fence bisects the campground. Fire officials ordered that the camp be set up so that small domed tents dominate one side, while people on the other side sleep on about 300 cots under open-air canopies.
The effect, some residents say, has been polarization and snobbery on the part of those who have tents. "Just because they got lucky," one cot-bound resident grumbled, "they think they can look down their noses at us."
Five "minicamps," each with its own agenda and ideals, have evolved inside the campground. At least two of them, Justiceville and Love Camp, are rebirths of the sidewalk encampments that police kicked off skid row.
Justiceville members consider their group political, and their leader, Ted Hayes, regularly pushes their platform with city officials. Many members are homeless by choice and want the city to give them oceanfront land so they can start an aquafarm. Love Camp's members are trying to find jobs.
Most residents say they feel safe in the camp, but many would rather have a roof. "It gets cold at night," said Richard, 35, who sleeps on a cot, "and the wind is always blowing dirt in your face."
Others worry what will happen when the campground closes Sept. 18, when the city is supposed to return the land to the Southern California Rapid Transit District. The camp initially was to close last Saturday, but Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley ordered the reprieve while the city searches for alternatives.
"If they close this down, and they don't let us sleep on the street, and they don't open more shelters or hotels, then where are we supposed to go?" one angry resident asked.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Deane Dana thought he had a novel answer in the form of a ship. A Sacramento company offered to sell or lease to the county a 328-foot World War II-era barge that could sleep 400 people. The former Navy vessel was home most recently to Alaska cannery workers and has been docked, unused, in Puget Sound for the last three years.
The county Board of Supervisors rejected the proposal for fiscal and other reasons, but the consideration of such a plan scared and angered many homeless people and their advocates.
"This is an extremely irresponsible response to a major crisis," said Maria Foscarinis, Washington counsel for the National Coalition for the Homeless. "It is an attempt to isolate the homeless."
Gary Blasi, director of the Homeless Litigation Unit of the Los Angeles Legal Aid Foundation, finds the camp equally disturbing. "If putting cots on dirt is a solution to housing poor people," he said, "that's ominous."
Blasi and other critics see it as an excuse for not attacking the causes of homelessness. "These policies have evolved into a 'this is better than that, which is better than that' kind of thing which leads to no long-term solutions," Blasi said.
Foscarinis says the camp is an example of cities' efforts nationwide to drive the homeless out of town and out of sight.
Mitch Snyder of the Community for Creative Nonviolence in Washington says emergency measures such as the camp are "not adequate or responsible. They're a copout. At the same time, however, for people on the street it is a more desirable situation. It is superior to what they've had, and that is the real indictment. That is what's blasphemous."
But Snyder does not foresee a nationwide trend toward more camps such as the one in Los Angeles and a more permanent one in Phoenix. "I think there will be a relaxing of rules and regulations on people sleeping in parks," he said.
Advocates for the homeless and municipal officials agree on the need for federal help, especially funds to subsidize low-cost housing.
Meanwhile, many cities, including Los Angeles, have been enlisting private corporations to raise money for programs for the homeless. One such public-private partnership is Building a Better Los Angeles, conceived by California builder Nathan Shapell and headed by Chapell, Mayor Bradley and county Supervisor Mike Antonovich.
The group raised $1 million at its first fund-raiser in June.
"We know that it's a Band-Aid approach," said Richard Mahan of Shapell Industries, "but we eventually want to raise substantial funds -- hundreds of millions of dollars . . . . We hope to get other industries involved in parallel efforts."
At the same time, Deputy Mayor Grace Davis is trying to find a new home for the 600 urban campground residents, looking at industrial sites and buildings that could become permanent shelters.
"We really want to have a situation where people can stay under a roof and not have to go out on the street in the morning," she said.