The message was short and sweet.
Smiling benignly at the more than 130 homeless people gathered in the chapel of the Long Beach Rescue Mission, the visiting preacher extolled the virtues of following Jesus and panned the wages of sin.
"Every one of you has eternal life; you're destined to stand before God either as a believer or a sinner," said Tom Sorensen, a member of Los Altos Grace Brethren Church. "The Bible says you're going to spend eternity in one of two places: heaven or hell. There's no fence straddling and you can't talk your way in."
Forty-five minutes later, as the ragged group shuffled into the dining room to receive a reward for listening--dinner of macaroni and cheese, cut green beans and pears--Gary Wells, a 36-year-old former machinist who had been living on the streets for four years, reflected soberly on what he had heard. "I liked it," he said. "It's been a long time since I've heard a church service. It makes you think about the direction your life is taking."
Wells may be one of a dwindling percentage of the homeless still willing to pay the time-honored price of listening to a sermon in exchange for a meal and a bed.
For 15 years, the mission--supported entirely by private donations and some community fund-raisers--has been feeding, housing and preaching to the city's homeless. Four years ago it moved to its present location on Pacific Avenue, about a mile from the heart of downtown.
There, Samaritan House, tastefully decorated in muted orange and bramble tan and resembling a sleek modern apartment building more than a shelter, offers 100 beds for men. Across the street at Lydia House are another 33 places for women and children.
Yet at a time when city officials and social service agencies are calling for more shelters to house what they describe as the area's burgeoning homeless population, Wayne Teuerle, an ordained evangelical minister and the rescue mission's executive director, says he is running at only 50% to 60% capacity.
The reason depends on who you talk to. Teuerle says it is because he is already meeting the needs of the city's homeless and that government-funded efforts--including a van that drives through the downtown area distributing lunches, and a county voucher program to put homeless people up at local motels--are a waste of taxpayers' money.
The providers of those services say the mission is not well attended because Teuerle simply won't serve certain segments of the homeless population and many of those he would serve are turned off by the religiosity and regimentation of his facility.
The result is a tense standoff that threatens to disrupt the delicate working relationship between those who refer the homeless to shelters, and the city's only shelter willing to accept single men who comprise the bulk of the homeless.
"There is a mounting sort of negative energy that's occurring," said John Siegel, director of the Mobile Homeless Assistance project which runs the van. "(Teuerle) has really been creating a major disturbance by complaining about everybody else's services, but when it comes to his own, he really doesn't meet the need."
Siegel's program, in fact, is one often singled out by Teuerle for special invective. Funded by a state grant administered by the county Department of Mental Health Services, the program's ultimate goal is to identify and serve those among the homeless who are mentally ill, a segment of the population Teuerle admits he is not equipped to serve.
But in attempting to reach the mentally ill, Teuerle said, the van has indiscriminately distributed lunches throughout the downtown area, thus duplicating his own efforts and encouraging the homeless to congregate near local businesses much to the irritation of their owners.
Lunch Crowd Dropped
"The first day they passed out those lunches, my lunch crowd went from 130 to 84," Teuerle said. Although the number has since crept back up to a daily average of 100 to 150, he said, attendance at the mission's lunches fluctuates much more widely now than before the van existed and virtually never approaches capacity.
By taking lunches to the parks, Teuerle said, Siegel and his group are encouraging the homeless to be lazy. "Our whole purpose in being where we are is to get them away from downtown," he said. "If a (guy) can stay where he is and have someone bring him lunch, then he isn't forced to change."
Teuerle also is critical of a county-funded voucher program that sheltered 235 homeless people in Long Beach during a three-day period last month when nighttime temperatures dropped below 40 degrees. During the same period, he said, his mission had empty beds that could have housed a large portion of those people without costing taxpayers a cent. "They should have utilized the shelter available instead of spending the money (for more)," he said.
But many homeless people simply refuse to stay at the mission, local service providers say. "It's a religiously oriented program and lots of people don't want that kind of program," said Helene Pazini, president of the Long Beach Area Coalition for the Homeless, a grass-roots group formed to look into the problem of homelessness in Long Beach.
Van Reaches Another Segment
Of those who do go to the mission, they say, many are turned away for unspecified reasons. "We've taken (several) people there and none of them could get in," said Celine Bonillo, assistant director of the Mobile Homeless Assistance Project. By taking lunches to the parks and street corners, she said, the van project is reaching that segment of the homeless population unwilling or unable to be housed and fed at the mission or at the city's only other homeless shelter, the Long Beach Family Shelter, a smaller county-run facility that accepts only women and families and is usually filled to capacity.
Teuerle admits turning away anyone who is obviously intoxicated, unruly or mentally ill. But those cases, he said, number only about 10 to 20 a month, or 1% of the homeless he sees. All others, he said, are allowed to stay five days with no questions asked, and longer if mission chaplains become convinced that the homeless are making satisfactory progress toward finding employment. A few, he said, are even admitted to the mission's New Life program, a long-term "Christian discipleship" aimed at, among other things, providing them with employable skills.
"These people saved my life," said Byron Calvin, 22, who arrived at the mission 17 months ago after living on the streets and in jails for a year and a half. Now serving as a voluntary member of the mission's staff, Calvin says he hopes to leave as soon as he can land a job as a plumber's apprentice, hopefully within a few weeks. "They worked with me when I didn't think I could work with myself," he said of the New Life program.
Even short-term guests, however, must abide by the house rules. Attendance at the nightly church service is mandatory. Bedtime is 9:30 p.m., with reveille at 5:45 a.m. Beds must be made and minor household chores performed. Bodies must be clean and clothing (much of which is provided by the mission) must be neat.
Homeless Give Opinions
The discipline and religious overtones have led to complaints from some of the overnighters.
"They treat you like you're in prison," said George Wilkerson, 44, who said he recently spent three nights at the mission but now prefers sleeping under the Anaheim Street bridge. "I wouldn't sleep there again if they paid me."
Said Clemon Parson, 56: "I don't like having religion crammed down my throat."
Most of those at a recent service, however, did not seem to mind listening to a bit of the gospel in exchange for a meal. "It was nice," said Joe Almeida, 32. "It got the message across."
But when chaplain Bert Linn asked for a show of hands at the end of the service from those willing to accept Jesus into their hearts, not a hand went up.
That's all right, he said. "I struggled 23 years before I let the Lord take over." And tomorrow's another day.