Cash Infusion Gives Homeless Agencies New Hope

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Times Staff Writer

David Christiansen wants to start a social revolution.

He wants to see “a real difference in our social environment--that we make homelessness against the law, that we just say homelessness cannot exist in our country,” he said the other day, seated at his desk in a small house in a blue-collar San Pedro neighborhood.

Well, Christiansen is getting a chance to make his wish come true--in a small, quiet way.

The Harbor Interfaith Shelter, which Christiansen directs, and four other Los Angeles-area shelters for homeless people received $100,000 each last week to fund experiments in social and personal change. The $500,000 in first-time grants from the privately financed Greater Los Angeles Partnership for the Homeless will pay for expanded services aimed at making homeless individuals and families self-supporting.

The grants are the first round in the partnership’s “Model Shelters” program to develop long-term solutions to Los Angeles’ homelessness crisis, which was highlighted last week by the city’s crackdown on Skid Row encampments and the arrests of four activists protesting the demolition of villages of cardboard boxes and discarded furniture.


More Unified Effort Sought

Eventually, the partnership hopes this pilot program will lead to a more unified and systematic approach to the delivery of services to the homeless by the 80 or so shelters scattered throughout Los Angeles County, said Suzanne Campi, the partnership’s president.

Whatever the outcome of the one-year projects developed by the five shelters, it is clear that the sudden flood of cash--in some cases nearly double the agencies’ annual budgets--has lifted the ambitions of the shelters’ staffers.

“It’s a luxury to go beyond offering ‘three hots and a cot’ and really implementing change in people’s lives,” said Sandra Browne of Pasadena’s Hill House, a 15-bed emergency shelter operated by Lutheran Social Services of Southern California. “I’ve become very disillusioned with temporary emergency shelter. . . . The causes of homelessness are not solved by providing a bed for someone.”

Hill House and two other church-sponsored Pasadena agencies--Union Station, a day center, and The Depot, a 20-bed emergency shelter--will share a $100,000 grant. Taking clients screened by The Depot, Hill House will offer homeless individuals and families longer-term shelter coupled with services such as job referral and counseling.

Workers for the three other recipients--West Los Angeles’ People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), Boyle Height’s House of Ruth and Skid Row’s Los Angeles Men’s Place--expressed sentiments similar to those of Browne and Christiansen. The grants, they said, will enable their agencies to break out of the often frustrating routine of providing emergency services that seem to have little lasting impact on homelessness.

Services Provided

“We have always been committed to providing more than food and shelter to the extent that we can,” said Nancy Berlin of the House of Ruth, a shelter for single women and women with children. But Berlin said that, with the grant, the shelter now can provide such services as mental health counseling.


“Any homeless person has been through (psychological) trauma,” Berlin said. “The events that lead up to it (homelessness) are very traumatic as well.”

Although the shelters are adopting different approaches--ranging from an extensive job training and placement program by Harbor Interfaith to expanded shelter services for single men by PATH and the Men’s Place--the agencies share a common outlook: that homelessness remains widely misunderstood despite massive media exposure and lengthy public debate over the issue.

Rigorous Demands on Street

Michele A. Smollar, executive director of PATH, maintained that much of the public seems to have little idea of the rigorous demands of living on the street.

“Being homeless is a 24-hour-a-day job,” she said, explaining that finding work or scraping together money for an apartment are distant goals made even more remote by the primal requirements of survival.

Shelter representatives also agreed that they will use part of their funds to pay new workers, saying that they are chronically short of labor. For instance, Christiansen was joyous that another employee will mean “a 25% increase in our staff.”

Whether the five shelters will succeed in developing ways to stop the “recycling of homeless people from one shelter to the next” is far from certain, the partnership’s Campi said. But because “the right mix of services” for breaking that cycle isn’t known, the partnership decided that the shelters should have the “opportunity to fail” as well as succeed in that search, she said.


Problems Illustrated

The problems faced by the five agencies were inadvertently illustrated last week at a Skid Row press conference announcing the grants. While partnership officials, representatives of supporting corporations and Mayor Tom Bradley heralded the occasion for the media, an angry, unkempt man paced and gestured in the street, swearing at the group of well-dressed people who had gathered in front of the Los Angeles Men’s Place.

His expletives still punctuating the hopeful words of the dignitaries, the man found the courage to skirt the edge of the crowd and make a dash through the door of the shelter.

Afterward, Mollie Lowery, director of the day center for mentally ill homeless men, explained that the man had been confused by the crowd, which seemed to be blocking his way to the center where he has lunch every day.

The Men’s Place, which will use its grant to help establish emergency, long-term and permanent housing for its clients, and the four other grant recipients were selected from about 20 applicants, the partnership’s Campi said.

The partnership was founded in 1985 and last fall launched a three-year campaign to raise more than $4 million for financial and technical aid to programs assisting homeless people.

Backers of the partnership, chaired by Bettina Chandler, include these local corporations and foundations: Arco, General Telephone, the Weingart Foundation, the Joseph Drown Foundation, the Times Mirror Foundation, the Pfaffinger Foundation, the Southern California Gas Co., McDonnell Douglas/West and, most recently, TransAmerica Corp.