Private Shelter for Homeless Families to Open in Norwalk

Times Staff Writer

The families have come and gone, yet their stories linger.

There was the woman with two jobs and two children and no place to leave them. There were the unemployed steelworker and his wife from Colorado with sick youngsters and a car that wouldn't run. There were deserted fathers with eviction notices and tears of fear and uncertainty.

They were homeless, and finding a place for them to stay for more than a few nights in the Southeast area was an exercise in frustration for clergy and social workers. The nearest family shelters were in Long Beach or Orange or Pasadena, and even these were usually full.

By early February, that should change. A rambling, red-roofed building at Norwalk's Metropolitan State Hospital will become the Rio Hondo Temporary Home, a privately run shelter with beds, play areas and cooking facilities for about 35 families.

It will be one of the largest family shelters in Los Angeles County. Families will be able to stay for as long as two months. They will get job and psychological counseling, help in finding a place to live and a chance to recover from the pressures and problems that pushed them into the streets.

"It's like refugee resettlement," said the Rev. Charles Belknap, pastor of Incarnation Mission Episcopal Church in Norwalk and Rio Hondo's acting director. "It's a matter of welcoming these people back into the community."

The shelter is the first project of Stop Homelessness in the Rio Hondo Area, a broad-based coalition of about 30 church and civic groups, individuals and five Southeast-area cities.

The coalition was formed in mid-1986 after the Red Cross initiated a series of community meetings on the homelessness problem and the lack of shelters in the area. Although the Salvation Army this month is opening a temporary 200-bed regional shelter in Bell for men and women without children, few facilities for the homeless have been available in the Southeast outside of scattered church beds and some charitably run shelters in Whittier.

"I remember sitting one day, calling 18 shelters, all out of the area, all of them full," said Lois Holmes, director of Emergency Family Services for the Rio Hondo Chapter of the American Red Cross. "That was when I got so disgusted and said: 'I don't see why we can't have a shelter in the Rio Hondo area.' "

The coalition chose to create a family shelter because there are no others in Southeast Los Angeles County and because the number of homeless families is rising. "Most studies show that one of the fastest-growing groups (of homeless) is families," said Paul Tepper of the Shelter Partnership, a nonprofit group that helps shelters in the Los Angeles area.

Ever-increasing rents, a drop in the construction of low-cost housing and a stagnant minimum wage are making it harder for families with marginal incomes to maintain a roof over their heads, say Tepper and others familiar with the homeless. When the rent goes up, or a wage earner loses a job or becomes ill, an apartment suddenly is beyond reach.

"They sit there until they get evicted, and then they panic and they come to us," said Diane Hutson, social services coordinator for Norwalk, one of the cities in the Stop Homelessness coalition.

When the city has federal grant money for the homeless, it can put families up in motels for a few days at a time. The rest of the time, it can only refer them elsewhere.

The woman with two jobs and two children went to Hutson after she was evicted because she couldn't afford her rent increase. Hutson sent her to a Long Beach shelter, which wouldn't take her because of her late work hours. The woman wound up leaving her children in her car and parking it outside while she worked at two restaurants.

Those who deal with homeless families say many of them are headed by single women with low-paying jobs or no jobs. The Rio Hondo coalition expects that most of its residents will be women and children. "We have more bathroom space for women and children than for men," noted Belknap.

But Holmes has also counseled her share of families headed by men whose wives had left them. "I remember seeing those big men sit at my desk and weep," she said.

Former Mental Ward

Rio Hondo has signed a four-year lease with the state to rent a vacant former mental ward at Metropolitan for $1 a month, plus utility and administrative costs totaling $1,900 a month. Last used for a drug program run by the state hospital, the 50-year-old, Spanish-style building is still a shelter more in promise than in reality.

Its yellow-walled, institutional rooms echo with emptiness, waiting to be transformed into mini-homes. Over the next month, contractors will erect walls to subdivide the larger spaces, renovate the bathrooms and equip a communal kitchen.

Families will have their own small rooms and do their own food shopping and cooking. Residents will maintain the building and have a say in the shelter's daily management.

The building will accommodate 110 to 150 beds. While established for families, Rio Hondo will likely accept some individual homeless people as well, Belknap said.

Enviable Success

Rio Hondo is being patterned after an 11-year-old shelter in Orange, the Christian Temporary Housing Facility. Rio Hondo founders say the Orange shelter--whose director is on the Rio Hondo board--has an enviable success rate, sending 85% of its residents to some sort of permanent housing.

It is that kind of track record to which the Stop Homelessness board aspires. The Rev. Dale Ryan, chairman of the board and assistant pastor of the Whittier Area Baptist Fellowship, stresses that Rio Hondo supporters don't want the shelter to be just a two-month respite from the streets. Rather, they envision it as a place where families can rally their forces for a return to normal life.

Prospective residents will be referred by social agencies and churches, which will screen families to find those most likely to benefit from a stay at Rio Hondo. "We're skimming the top of the homeless population," Belknap said.

The families will be admitted on a three-day trial basis, allowing time for undetected drug or medical problems to surface. If they stay, they will talk to social workers and job and housing counselors. They will have to agree to try to find a job or improve their work situation. If they fail to keep their promises, they will be asked to leave, although Belknap said no one will be thrown out onto the street.

Salaries Take Half

The Stop Homelessness group estimates that it will take $250,000 a year to run the shelter. About half that sum will pay the salaries of resident managers, counselors and administrators. The money is expected to come from the state, area cities, private donations, churches and social organizations. A state Emergency Shelter Program grant of $250,000 is covering $90,000 in building renovation costs, along with leasing expenses.

The cities of Whittier, Norwalk, La Mirada, Pico Rivera and Santa Fe Springs all have representatives on the Stop Homelessness board, and Downey is expected to join. Each city is being asked to contribute between $15,000 and $20,000 to the program.

"It's something that's desperately needed," said Pico Rivera's community development director, Bill Shannon. "We're very excited about the Norwalk facility."

Remarked Belknap: "We expect it to be full very fast. It's like a new L. A. freeway. It gets filled very fast and doesn't relieve the problem."

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