Researcher Tries to Stay in Stride With Homeless

Times Staff Writer

It was a rainy day, and Ray Schreiner was in the mood to talk.

Comfortably ensconced in the cab of Jim Reed's Suburu Brat, the homeless man chewed tobacco and spoke animatedly to Reed about his experiences in Vietnam and his Tennessee childhood.

When the Salvation Army volunteers across the street began packing up what was left of the food they were giving out and the regular crowd of hungry began to leave, Schreiner got out of the truck, picked up his possessions, took a last piece of bread and said goodby as he set off down the street.

"You can react to him in one of two ways," Reed said as he pulled his car away from the curb. "You can smile, or you can cry."

A 34-year-old graduate student in counseling at California State University, Northridge, Reed spends four days a week with people like Schreiner as part of an unusual, 10-month study of the homeless in the Glendale-Burbank area. He is conducting the research for the Verdugo Mental Health Center with the help of a $20,000 county grant.

Reed bypasses conventional methods in his study, focusing not on the numbers of people on the streets, but on the reasons some of them are there. His study of more than 80 homeless people, so far, is one of a growing number of efforts nationwide to research the issue by talking to homeless people themselves.

Lots of Numbers, Few Details

"One of the biggest difficulties in working with the homeless is there isn't enough real data that's been gathered at very close range," Reed said. "Everybody's got their theories, but no one really talks to these people to find out what's really going on. We've got lots of numbers, but little that deals with the homeless as people."

Verdugo Mental Health Center, a private, nonprofit clinic in Glendale, has long provided counseling to low-income walk-in patients, said Lynn Bourdon, the clinic's director of administrative services. When Wayne Jones, executive director of the clinic, discovered county financing was available to support work with the homeless, he submitted a proposal.

In September, the center received the grant for the study from the county Department of Community and Senior Citizens Services. But the clinic had no one to work on the research and little idea of what exactly it would entail until Reed, who heard about the grant from a friend, submitted a proposal, Jones said.

Although many local public and private organizations provide food or shelter to the homeless, those organizations fail to help a large segment of the population, directors of those agencies agree.

Different Strokes

"Any program that's going to deal with the homeless is going to have to deal with the fact that everybody's life is slightly different," Reed said. "The programs have to be malleable enough to cope with the differences in people's lives."

Reed is focusing his study on homeless in the mental health center's coverage area--Burbank, Glendale, La Canada Flintridge, La Crescenta, Montrose and parts of northern Pasadena. When the study is finished, by July 1, 1988, Jones said, it will be distributed to public and private social agencies throughout the county.

National advocates for the homeless say Reed's method--of going out and getting to know the people on the streets--is unconventional. Those advocates say that probably fewer than 10 such studies have been completed nationwide, most of them in the last two years. More common are studies based on interviews with people on the front lines of dealing with the homeless--workers and directors of shelters and social agencies, said Maria Foscarinis, counsel to the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington.

But, as innovative as Reed's study may be, some national homeless advocates challenge both its methodology and its usefulness. They suggest that psychological studies of the homeless ignore the growing numbers of people who are on the streets for economic, not emotional, reasons.

"Generally, studies in which people try to go out and interview homeless people have the danger of perpetuating a stereotype," Foscarinis said. "If you go out and look for people who look homeless, you are in serious danger of ignoring people who don't look like what we think of as homeless, but are."

That criticism appears to supported by the results of Reed's study so far. More than 95% of the homeless people Reed has interviewed are white males and Vietnam veterans, whereas national surveys suggest that more than one-third of the homeless are women with young children.

Reed acknowledges the study's weaknesses but said he is making an effort to interview the less-visibly homeless as well. He says those will be harder to find, but he is confident that he will be able to interview at least a representative sampling of them.

"It's a little like trying to locate elves. When you try to find them, they're gone," he said. "They just sort of skitter away."

But locating those hard-to-reach street people may well be the most important aspect of Reed's research, homeless advocates say.

"All the organizations are dealing extensively with the homeless who are asking for help, and that's of course what we're here for," said Melvin Kuznets, director of the Glendale Department of Public Social Services. "But the real thing is there are people on the streets who don't come in for help. There has to be an outreach effort made to find out how best to reach those people."

Reed said 30% of the people he has interviewed came to California to make their living but found no work. More than 90%, he said, had poor relationships with their fathers or were physically abused as children. He has found a low percentage of black homeless in the study, he said.

Armed with a small tape recorder and a list of 85 questions ranging from "Were you abused as a child?" to "What is your drug of choice?" Reed sets off each workday to parks, shelters and abandoned houses to try to find and interview the elusive homeless, a population he defines as people with no permanent place to stay.

Developed List Himself

Reed, who is a year away from completing a master of science program in counseling psychology, developed the list of questions and asks them all during informal conversations. He said he chose the questions to support or dispute all the main schools of thought on why people turn to the streets.

On one recent day, Reed shared vegetable soup with a group of homeless clustered on a stoop near the Salvation Army Center in Glendale. Gently but persistently, he questioned them one at a time, asking if he could tape them, then listening to their stories.

Lynn, 40, was one of those he interviewed that day. A short woman with disheveled hair and chipped polish on her fingernails, she said she is from Glendale and has been on the streets "too long."

Asked why she didn't go to a shelter for women, she said she relishes her freedom and resents being told what to do. Clutching a whiskey bottle in one hand and a small, grimy, stuffed animal in the other, she wept about her life on the streets.

Who's Fault?

"I never thought this would happen to me," she said. "But it's true. OK, you see it's my fault, but nevertheless, I'm 40 years old and I'm sitting on pavement. My memory has kind of slipped. I just need some help to get off the streets, because I'm not going to be able to do it myself."

People like Lynn, Reed said, present one kind of problem that few existing shelter programs fully address: convincing people afraid to leave the streets that life is probably better, and safer, indoors.

Reed said he understands the homeless because he had a difficult childhood and at one point was almost homeless himself. In 1983, he said, he contracted a lung disease and was unemployed. Unable to pay his hospital bills, he sold his possessions and borrowed from friends to make ends meet.

"It was a nightmare," Reed said. "So I know the feeling. I know what it's like to be hit so hard that you can't get up again. That's one of the reasons it matters to me to work with these people. It's like in boxing when someone delivers the knockout shot. For a lot of these people, that's what life has been like for them."

Reed is a San Francisco native who moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago. He divides his time among studying for his degree, pursuing an acting career, counseling at the Salvation Army and working on the study.

He said he supports himself through tutoring and odd jobs ranging from data processing to waiting tables. Eventually, Reed said, he hopes to establish a therapeutic community for homeless people in a rural setting somewhere. But for now, such a community remains a dream.

For the next several months, Reed will continue donning his ripped vest and old jeans and going off in search of the homeless. Sometimes he has a destination--a shelter, a park or a soup kitchen. Other times he drives up and down the streets looking for people who look like they have no place to go.

"I'm not a crusader, I'm not an expert at this," Reed said. "I'm just somebody who cares. And I'm willing to go out there and try to help."

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