Growing Ranks of Homeless Put Shelters to Test

Times Staff Writer

Outside the old red-brick firehouse, it was bitterly windy and 6 degrees--the day's high. Inside, 60 homeless women--still wrapped in coats, knit caps and mufflers--huddled on plastic couches.

What the former fire station lacked in heat, though, it briefly made up for in human warmth as several of the women gathered around a cooing, month-old boy brought in for a visit by his once-homeless mother.

The Firehouse, a year-old drop-in shelter, is far from luxurious, but being there last week was better than being outdoors in Chicago's arctic temperatures.

Winter began only Saturday, but already the cold has broken records across America's frost belt, creating life-threatening conditions for people without shelter.

More Money Spent

This year, more money is being spent on helping the homeless and finding emergency shelter for them than at any time since the Great Depression. More beds have been pressed into service and more firehouses, church basements and old storefronts have become daytime drop-in centers.

Chicago is operating under a new plan that expands the city's shelter space when the mercury drops. New rules in New York, Philadelphia and Boston require the police to take homeless people to shelters on especially cold nights. St. Louis is setting up a computerized clearinghouse and transportation system to steer those without shelter to available beds.

Despite all of the efforts, those who house the homeless are unable to meet the demand. Record numbers of people are seeking shelter this year and more of them, including thousands of families and youths, are not finding it.

"You do more, but the problem just seems to get larger," said Doug Dobmeyer, president of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, a private, nonprofit advocacy group.

One reason, Dobmeyer and others say, is that governmental relief efforts have favored stop-gap measures over long-term changes that might keep people from becoming homeless.

As long as public-assistance payments are shrinking and affordable housing is disappearing, the ranks of those without a place to sleep--now estimated by the government at 350,000 people and by advocacy groups at more than 2 million--appear certain to swell.

A bleak winter was forecast for Chicago back in July, when one overnight shelter refused 600 requests for refuge because it was filled to capacity. By October, nearly every shelter in the city had turned away homeless people.

Now, as the freeze hardens, shelters in many cities are dangerously crowded.

In Denver, where the November cold broke records, 200 people have been spending nights in the 170-bed Samaritan Shelter. "We're not going to turn people into the cold at midnight," said Father William Kraus.

On frigid nights in Boston this month, the Pine Street Inn, a 380-bed shelter, has opened its doors to more than 600 people, many of whom must sleep on benches or the floor.

Doubled Space Not Enough

The Coalition on Temporary Shelter in Detroit has doubled to 100 the number of emergency beds it is providing this year--and is still turning away an average of 140 people each month.

In Chicago, temperatures have remained below freezing for two weeks, and a Salvation Army shelter for families has had to turn away someone nearly every night.

Peter Wasielak, director of a Catholic Charities shelter in Chicago, says he goes home some nights "feeling very sorrowful. I place myself in their shoes. When it's cold and I'm real tired, I want someplace to rest my head."

Mary Lou Turner, director of the Firehouse, run by the Chicago Christian Industrial League, says that when she arrives soon after the doors open at 5 a.m., "I usually have 15 people here already."

One of them is Wanda Taylor, 23 and pregnant, a 10-year veteran of the streets whose baby is due any day. "What woke me up was friends' saying I shouldn't live that way--sleeping in cars and abandoned buildings," she said. Living in emergency shelters, she said, "is not a good life, but it's better than before."

A growing awareness of the plight of the homeless has prompted city after city during the last year to set up task forces to study the problem and make recommendations. As a result, several fresh attempts to help are being made.

Plan Keyed to Temperature

Under its new program, Chicago last week opened several dozen temporary shelters in churches and other buildings for use whenever the temperature falls below 11 degrees. That adds several hundred beds to those usually available. Chicago has 1,660 permanent shelter beds for a homeless population estimated at 25,000.

Chicago also was handing out thousands of yellow cards giving a toll-free emergency telephone number for referrals to shelter. The cards, printed in English, Spanish and Polish, are headlined: "Too Cold?"

Eugene Love, director of city emergency services, says the card offers a lifeline to people who may not be able to afford a phone call when they need help. "We don't want them to have to beg for quarters," Love said. "Many of these people call 10 places before finding one that has a bed."

Master Lists of Vacancies

City operators have fielded several dozen calls a day on the number, using master lists of vacancies to refer homeless people to shelters able to accommodate them.

St. Louis, with an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people without homes, is setting up a 24-hour control center to keep track of empty beds and refer people needing shelter. The city also plans to turn unoccupied apartments into overnight shelters for 200 people and permanent housing for an additional 600.

In New York City, an agreement between the city and a nonprofit organization will allow families suddenly left homeless this winter to stay overnight in synagogues and churches rather than at welfare offices, where in the past they have slept while waiting for space to be found in hotels or shelters.

New York, under court order to provide shelter to those without homes, has been housing about 4,000 families totaling 14,500 people and more than 8,000 individuals. Several hundred people have been forced to go to shelters under the new cold-weather emergency order that police must transport the homeless, by force if necessary, to shelters when the temperature falls below 32 degrees.

In Philadelphia last weekend, under a new order from Mayor W. Wilson Goode, police transported more than 30 people from building alcoves and steam vents to shelters when temperatures fell into the teens. Boston has a similar policy, effective only when temperatures fall to 10 degrees.

A four-year, $25-million Health Care for the Homeless project, sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Pew Memorial Trust, supports medical care programs in 19 cities, including Los Angeles. In Detroit, for example, mobile teams headed by a physician, nurse and social worker make weekly visits to 11 shelters and soup kitchens.

Medical Care Programs

"Health is the wedge we're using to get at other problems" of the homeless, said Andrew Burness, spokesman for the Johnson foundation in Princeton, N.J. The foundation, with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, last week also announced a $100-million program of projects in eight cities to provide housing and mental health care to mentally ill persons without homes.

Congress recently authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which provides disaster relief, to spend $70 million on emergency food and shelter programs next year. The agency has spent $230 million on such programs since 1983.

Advocates for the homeless criticize the federal government, however, for treating homelessness as an emergency rather than an enduring social problem. This year, many people who work with the homeless worry that shelters intended to be temporary may already be permanent.

"We don't want to create ghettos for the homeless," said George Eberle Jr., chairman of the St. Louis Mayor's Task Force on the Homeless.

Some of the extra demand for shelter this year comes from people displaced by the demolition of cheap hotels and abandoned buildings.

Rents Exceed Relief Pay

The level of public assistance also is considered a key factor in the problem. In Chicago, for example, a single man on the streets receives $154 a month from the state; the cheapest hotel charges $180 a month.

Another reason, some say, is that homeless people are beginning to consider the shelters--crowded, dirty and noisy as they may be--an improvement over their current living situation, which frequently means doubling up with relatives and friends.

Much of the money spent on aiding the homeless across the country, however, has not gone into new shelters. Instead, it has been used to meet city fire and safety codes. A Salvation Army family shelter in an old Holiday Inn in Chicago, for example, is spending $130,000 in community development money this year to bring the building up to code.

The director, Capt. L. Michael Fletcher, says he wants the shelter to be safe but he would prefer to spend the money on housing more people. "It seems to me that any room that provides sanctuary from the cold is better than a dumpster," he said.

New York spends millions of dollars each year to house the homeless, but Robert Hayes, of the national Coalition for the Homeless, says that the money is "being squandered. We have to spend money prudently. We're not doing that here."

Extra Spending Planned

Chicago Mayor Harold Washington plans to spend $1.7 million next year to help the homeless--$500,000 more than this year. But city Alderman David Orr says an additional $2.5 million is needed just to cover emergency assistance. "We can't ask for miracles," Orr said.

This winter, the homeless just hope to keep warm.

"It's rough during the cold," said John Lewis, 38, in an interview at Chicago's Center for Street People on a bitterly cold day last week. "After about an hour, your hands start to freeze. Then you've got to get inside."

Lewis, who lost his job as a maintenance worker last year, sleeps in a shelter, eats at a soup kitchen around the corner and spends his day at the drop-in center.

"It's cold now," he said. "But it's going to get a lot colder."

Times researchers Wendy Leopold in Chicago, Dallas Jamison in Denver and Siobhan Flynn in New York also contributed to this report.

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