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My city couldn't support a winter homeless shelter this year and I'm ashamed

Once a week around this time, my daughter and I usually give out donated books at the Glendale winter homeless shelter. 

We love being the Book Ladies. We aren't social workers; we’re just volunteers. We don’t ask how the people landed in the shelter. Our conversations with them revolve around authors and novels and book requests. In that respect, the homeless in Glendale are as varied as any other group of people. Anne Rice was big last year, as was Tolkien. 

This year, however, we won’t be handing out books because Glendale, a city of more than 200,000, has not managed to arrange for a 2016-17 shelter for its homeless.

I don’t fault Ascensia, the nonprofit that runs Glendale’s homeless programs. It is an excellent, hardworking organization, doing the best it can. As recently as a few weeks ago, when I called to find out where the shelter would be this year, the staff were still optimistic about pulling together a temporary winter space. 

But it didn’t happen.

There are plenty of reasons why not. One is the difficulty of finding staff with the skills to deal with men and women who may be suffering from untreated mental illnesses, emotional issues and addiction in a potentially volatile setting, for very little pay. 

An even bigger challenge is finding a site. Ascensia believes that serving 80 people humanely requires 10,000 square feet. There must also be an adequate number of toilets and showers, tolerant neighbors and a landlord kind enough to rent cheap for less than a year. 

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, the county and city agency that coordinates L.A.’s homeless efforts, will reimburse the shelter $23 per person per night. When all the other costs are factored in, that’s not enough to cover Glendale’s commercial rental prices. 

A few generous, wealthy Glendalians could swan in and cover the entire cost, of course, as so many public ills could be cured. But barring such compassionate heroics, you’d think the cost could be shared among the rest of us. Surely we could all pitch in to provide the shelter needed to keep people from dying on the streets. That, according to Natalie Komuro, executive director of Ascencia, is the shelter’s primary purpose.  

I don’t scoop up homeless strangers and bring them to live in my spare bedroom, and I don’t expect anyone else to do that either. But as a community, a civilized society, I think we should take care of those in need.

Some folks believe the homeless bring their plight upon themselves and if their troubles aren’t our fault, they also aren’t our problem. Some believe the homeless have chosen a “lifestyle” that’s an easy out. But it sure doesn’t look easy to me. 

Last year, the winter shelter housed from 100 to 130 people a night in a warehouse near the train station. It was first come, first served, so sometimes, if you didn’t line up in time, you were turned away. One night, 36 people began lining up at 4 p.m. instead of 4:30. That half-hour was apparently too much for the people in the surrounding buildings. 

I don’t know how many of them called the city, and I don’t know how they worded their complaints. Maybe they looked out their windows and got scared, or they worried they would lose business, or they were just grossed out. 

Whatever the case, it got results. Glendale officials insisted that the early birds be barred from entering the shelter that night. No dinner. No bathroom. No cot. The city’s position was that spending the night on the street would teach the early arrivers not to be early again.

The on-site director begged the city for mercy but she was denied. Then it fell to her to carry out the punishment she considered gratuitously cruel. When my daughter and I rolled in with our books we found the staff fighting tears and the remaining guests distraught. Thirty-six women and men had been turned away. It hadn’t been a crowded night so their 36 dinners went uneaten and 36 cots stood empty. 

As unconscionable as that was last year, this is worse. A shelter with strict, punishing rules is better than no shelter at all.  

 I am ashamed of my city.

Amy Goldman Koss is the author of “Side Effects” and many other books for teens. 

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