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Live-In Center for Alcoholics Wins Support

Times Staff Writer

Mention the Salvation Army and alcoholics in the same breath and visions of Skid Row drunks, soup lines, empty wine bottles and unshaven men passed out in doorways are likely to flash through many a middle-class homeowner’s mind.

Predictably, when the religious and charitable organization decided to open a live-in center for alcoholic men at its San Fernando Valley satellite facility in Canoga Park two years ago, residents and merchants near the proposed center packed city zoning meetings to oppose it.

“There was a real uproar,” recalled Capt. William Bearchell, the center’s administrator. “The people told the city they didn’t want us bringing our drunks into the community to live next to them.”

The special zoning permit the center needed to begin admitting live-ins eventually was approved. And today, with the facility’s plans to expand services to alcoholics, Bearchell said, its most vocal opponents have become some of its biggest supporters. Two of them--one a housewife, the other an attorney--now serve on the Adult Rehabilitation Center’s advisory board.

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Letter of Praise

Another former opponent who lives across the street gave Bearchell a letter supporting the facility.

“I can well understand the concern of those who have not had any experience with this unique program which the Salvation Army offers when their homes and businesses are nearby,” wrote the woman, who asked that her name not be published.

After 22 years in the neighborhood, the writer said, she “cannot think of any change that has been more positive in this area than the Salvation Army’s purchase and development of their property. Almost immediately upon their arrival, the grounds became cleaner and more orderly.

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“The property was neatly fenced and a guard was checking the property in the evening and during the night. Teen-age vandalism in the area soon dropped to zero. The grounds were cleaned and cared for in a manner that had never been demonstrated before when private businesses had occupied the area.”

The center, begun four years ago as a satellite of the larger, 30-year-old Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center in Van Nuys, is on nine acres at Roscoe Boulevard and Canoga Avenue. It started out with two thrift stores and a warehouse, in which men from the Van Nuys center repaired and sorted items for Salvation Army thrift stores.

Facilities for 54 Men

But, like the area the center serves--from Corbin Avenue west to the City of Oxnard--operations grew fast, and before long, Bearchell said, the Salvation Army added living facilities for 54 men, the maximum allowed under its city permit.

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“We’re still growing,” he said. “We’re almost always filled to capacity. We’re limited by the number of men we can have here. But we’re gearing up to increase our services.”

Bearchell said he dreams not only of adding beds for men, but also of having a live-in women’s center next to the men’s.

He said that, although the Salvation Army, in more than 100 years of service, has built 125 adult rehabilitation centers for alcoholic men nationwide, it has only five centers in the United States for women. Of these, only one is in California. A Salvation Army center for women alcoholics opened last year in San Diego.

“We need to deal with women alcoholics. We need to stop pretending they’re not there. The men just happen to be more visible.”

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Women Will Be Included

Soon, Bearchell said, when funds are obtained and city codes met, women will be included in the work therapy program.

Bearchell said he expects none of the opposition of two years ago when he asks city planners for permission to open the women’s center. He said the Salvation Army already has enough property to build it.

Maj. Richard S. LeCappelain, administrator of the Van Nuys center, said he agrees that more services for women alcoholics are needed. But, he said, he now needs more beds for men. The older Van Nuys center has room for 88, which is “not nearly enough,” LeCappelain said. He said clients are referred from detoxification centers as far away as El Monte and Santa Monica.

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The Van Nuys and Canoga Park programs are supported by sales from thrift stores in their designated service territories. Bearchell’s staff is renovating two Canoga Park stores into one 15,000-square-foot store.

Other stores that support the Canoga Park center are in Simi Valley, Oxnard and Agoura. Five stores support the Van Nuys center, which serves the San Fernando Valley east of Corbin Avenue, and the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys.

Thrift-Store Airplane

Bearchell said the thrift stores still are known as places where “people can find anything and everything.” He said he recently sold a small airplane at one of his stores, and a restored 1970 Lincoln Continental Mark III is for sale now in Canoga Park for $5,000, but the price is negotiable.

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People with drinking problems are referred to the Valley centers by the Salvation Army’s Harbor Light Mission on Skid Row; People in Progress, a satellite of the state public inebriate program in Van Nuys, and other community agencies. Many walk in off the street.

There is only one requirement. A prospective client must have gone through the detoxification stage before he can be accepted into the centers’ therapy program.

Our men are “down but not out,” Bearchell said. “They are people with a treatable social problem.”

Jack Morse, services director for the Van Nuys center, said the first thing he does is give a new resident some clean clothes and let him shower and shave.

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‘Slow Return’ of Pride

“An alcoholic tends to lose all sense of pride,” said Morse, himself a recovered alcoholic. “Many men look in the mirror and despise themselves. That first look in the mirror here, after a man has cleaned himself up, is the beginning of the slow return of that pride.”

“It’s difficult to admit everything you’ve done before in your life is wrong,” LeCappelain said.

Morse said he approaches men with “sympathy and understanding. I tell them immediately that I’m a recovered alcoholic. We try to fit every man into the slot to which he is best suited here. But they must learn to live in a very structured program.”

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Each Man Gets a Job

LeCappelain said each man is given a job after he is cleaned up, interviewed and assigned a bed. Some work in the center offices and residence halls. Others sort or repair items donated for the thrift stores.

“It was William Booth’s philosophy that, if you give a man something for nothing, you destroy his dignity,” LeCappelain said. Booth founded the Salvation Army.

Every man who enters the program does so voluntarily and can leave anytime he wishes, Bearchell said.

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But, he added: “As long as they’re here, they must abide by our rules. If they’re not in by our curfew at night, we lock the doors and they sleep outside.”

Religious services are offered but are not mandatory.

‘The Army Is a Church’

“Basically, the army is a church,” Bearchell said. “We preach the religion but a man’s stay here is not dependent on his acceptance of it. We do believe that an encounter with God is necessary for total rehabilitation.”

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The supervisory staff of the centers meets weekly to discuss each man’s case, he said.

The average stay at a Salvation Army center is about 80 to 90 days, Bearchell said. But many men remain longer.

“A great many stay here five, six months, a year or longer,” Morse said. “Whenever they leave the program, we try to place them in a halfway house or make sure they have a job.”

He Knows in 30 Days

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LeCappelain said he generally can tell within 30 days if a man’s going to make it. “You learn to tell when they’re conning you and when they’re not. We’re thankful when they mention writing to their families. Then you know they’re serious. You should have seen the change in one man after he saw his wife and daughter for the first time in several years. It was just amazing.”

Typically, a Salvation Army rehabilitation center client is a homeless, transient male between 35 and 45. However, some are as young as 18 or as old as 62.

“They’re getting younger,” LeCappelain said. “We have lots of men in their 20s. But that’s because alcoholism is being recognized at a younger age now.”

The centers’ clients come from all walks of life, he said.

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One resident of the Canoga Park center, a writer, described himself as “a middle-class intellectual” who had accumulated “all the things money could buy” yet suffered a sense of failure and, as a result, had become an alcoholic.

‘Do Life Over Again’

He said he thought his problems would never get so insurmountable that he would voluntarily cross the threshold of a Salvation Army rehabilitation center. “But, when you fail at suicide, you have no alternative but to get back up and do life all over again,” he said.”

At the Salvation Army, he said, “I found my recovery from despair was placed in my hands. I had choices but I was not pressured to make decisions. There were no hard and fast deadlines.”

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Like many of the Salvation Army’s clients, Art Stafford of the Canoga Park center has served time in prison. He said he is grateful to the program because “I now have been sober for 15 months and was made assistant manager of the private residence.”

Stafford said he is grateful the people of Canoga Park allowed the center to open so they could “see the better side of men who are changing and getting their lives back together again.”


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