Soup Kitchen Fights Suit as Criticism Rises

Times Staff Writer

By the time breakfast begins at 9 a.m., the quiet migration of the destitute to Union Station is almost over.

Hungry men and women fill the small building and patio at Euclid Avenue and Walnut Street, spill onto the sidewalk, linger around the parking lot next door or go across the street to sit on the courthouse lawn.

On a recent morning, about 50 people were crowded inside the small building and another 25 sat in the patio outside eating oatmeal and doughnuts.

"I wouldn't have anything to eat if I didn't come here," said Frederick Robinson, 27, of Pasadena, who has been unemployed since August. "These people really help if you go to them."

"I never thought I'd come to this, living in a town that I thought had everything to offer," said Duane Johnson, 40, also of Pasadena, who lost his job at a retirement center two weeks ago.

Union Station, which also offers counseling and a variety of social services, "is the only place to come," Johnson said.

Eileen Savage, 42, sat crocheting afghans that she hoped to sell to pay her rent. Savage, one of a handful of women there that morning, said she has been coming Union Station off and on for 10 years.

"I've applied for general relief, but until I get it, this is the only way I get food," she said.

Union Station, the only soup kitchen in the San Gabriel Valley, has served breakfast and/or lunch to between 100 and 150 needy people daily since 1973. Growing numbers of indigent people have outgrown the dilapidated building and outworn their welcome in the nearby Civic Center that is fabled for its classic architecture and gardens.

Union Station's leaders thought they had a solution two years ago when they bought a site a mile away and proceeded with plans to build a larger structure, which would include sleeping accommodations for 60. But the owners of several businesses near the proposed site in an industrial area have sued the city to stop the move, claiming that locating a shelter there would violate city land-use ordinances and environmental regulations.

A Pasadena Superior Court ruled in favor of the relocation in January, 1986, and the opponents have appealed. The state Court of Appeal will hear the case on March 26.

If the business owners win, Union Station's leaders say they will continue to work with the city to get approval for the shelter because the present facility cannot meet increasing demands.

Meanwhile, complaints about Union Station have increased in recent months as growing numbers of indigent people loiter around the buildings and gardens of City Hall and the public library, both less than a block away, and the courthouse and its small grassy park across the street.

Most of the complaints revolve around litter, panhandling and abuse of public facilities. Employees in the courthouse have gone as far as to lock some restrooms in an effort to keep transients out.

In answer to the complaints, Union Station two weeks ago began opening at 7 a.m., two hours before breakfast is served, in an effort to get the transients off the street.

"Most people in Pasadena never saw this city as a Skid Row kind of place," said Bill Doulos, director of Union Station. He said that for much of its existence, the agency has served as "an invisible ministry" that began for a handful of elderly men living in old downtown hotels and rooming houses.

"People didn't want to know about us," Doulos said. "There was not the public awareness that exists now."

But with growing numbers of jobless and mentally ill people who cannot take care of themselves, Doulos said, "we have to live up to our social responsibility and not send them on to the next town."

"I wonder how long society can maintain its intense interest (in the indigent)," he said. "We want to be prepared for the day when the homeless won't be on the cover of Time and Newsweek. We have to strike while the iron's hot, because the problem will be persistent for a long time.

"There's a little trendiness in the issue of homelessness. People want to do something and do it now. This is an ideal time to be building our new building."

Founded by All Saints Episcopal Church in 1973 in a small store, Union Station started with a monthly budget of $200 and one volunteer director. Now in its third site, its 1987 budget is $300,000 and it has 10 paid employees.

While Union Station has grown continually through the years, Doulos said the number of homeless and needy began to rise dramatically in 1980 and now may be leveling off.

Sponsored by Churches

The soup kitchen is now sponsored by seven downtown Pasadena churches that have support from 50 other churches in surrounding cities.

More than 200 volunteers work three-hour shifts and help clean up the litter that accumulates in the neighborhood. Several volunteer donors supply it with regular gifts of food.

Doulos said that unlike the growing number of homeless, most people who frequent Union Station rent rooms or apartments but do not have enough money for food.

Spokesmen at Info Line, the county's referral service for those who need food, said Union Station is the only major service for the indigent east of downtown Los Angeles, where about six soup kitchens are open daily to anyone.

Linda Lewis, director of Info Line, said only two agencies, one in Lawndale and the other in Lancaster, have programs comparable to Union Station's, serving two meals a day to anyone who wants them. Santa Monica has two free meal programs sponsored by separate agencies, one serving breakfast and another lunch. Several other smaller programs throughout the county serve a few meals a week and many provide bags of food, vouchers for groceries and food for special groups such as Native Americans, Lewis said.

Info Line receives an average of 1,500 requests for food a month from throughout the county, an administrator said.

Numbers Vary

The building at 202 N. Euclid Ave. serves about 100 most days and up to 150 at month's end when patrons' welfare money runs out. Counseling and social services are provided by the Pasadena Guidance Clinic and Fuller Theological Seminary.

A corner of the building serves as a kitchen where simple food is prepared. There is a single bathroom and a small office used for counseling.

Although Union Station has no sleeping accommodations, it works with other agencies to provide beds for the homeless. It co-sponsors the Depot a block away, which has 20 beds for the homeless in the Pasadena First Congregational Church. It also co-sponsors Hill House, a family-oriented shelter and rehabilitation center with 11 beds, in another part of the city.

In mid-February Union Station and several other agencies opened an emergency shelter in a Pasadena Salvation Army gymnasium where up to 70 homeless people can sleep on cold and rainy nights.

Union Station began its effort to move into larger quarters in 1985, when it bought a vacant lot at 412 Raymond Ave. for $230,000.

Doulos said Union Station chose the industrial part of town because zoning ordinances prohibited its locating in a commercial or residential area. The lot was one of only two that were available, he said.

Granted Zoning Variances

The city granted some zoning variances, including a reduced number of parking spaces, after conducting several large public hearings.

The opponents' lawsuit claims that in approving the zoning variances, the city violated several of its land-use ordinances and environmental regulations.

'It doesn't take a genius to figure out what's going to happen," said attorney Martin C. Washton, representing the Old Pasadena Assn., the group filing the lawsuit.

Because the new facility would feed 225 people a day but provide beds for only 60, Washton said the loitering problem would grow worse.

"No one begrudges them meals--it's not giving them housing."

The new facility would be built with $425,000 from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the state Emergency Shelter Program. Doulos said private pledges are expected to cover the rest of the $700,000 building cost.

Plans call for a two-story building with showers, a laundry, dining room, kitchen, social work office, multipurpose room for classes and meetings, and the 60-bed dormitory.

"We have a right to exist in Pasadena, like all the others who come here," Doulos said.

"These people are not going to disappear. It's hopeless naivete to hope they will gravitate to Los Angeles' Skid Row."

'Social Conscience'

Mayor John Crowley, who supports the new location, said Pasadena "has been the social conscience for the whole Western San Gabriel Valley."

Doulos described Union Station's patrons as a mix of mentally and physically disabled people who will never be able to live independently, and, more recently a variety of "people sinking almost invisibly through the safety net into the streets--divorced, unemployed, healthy, sane, middle-class people who could fit right into the church next door or the plaza down the street."

Whereas patrons were once all men, about 20% now are women, he said.

Doulos called it a "myth" that the majority of indigents are alcoholics, saying most are "low-functioning people" and that mental illness "is at least as significant as drug or alcohol addiction."

Another myth, he said, is that the indigent are abusive and violent.

"They're docile, deferential, passive people," he said. "They've been battered down and the natural consequence is they're subdued."

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