San Joaquin Valley Homeless Shelters Busier Than Ever

Associated Press

Living on the good will of others doesn't sit well with Wallace and Edith Chapman, but since July they haven't had much choice.

"You get used to working all of your life, then they tell you you can't work, and they take away half of your life," said Wallace, 58, sitting with his wife on a curb outside their room at the City Motel in Fresno. Wallace said a stroke he suffered in July left him lacking the strength to sweep a short stretch of sidewalk.

Without his income, Edith's $420 monthly Social Security check doesn't stretch far, they said.

The Chapmans came to Fresno in search of an apartment and a government disability check. But they ended up living out of their car and asking the Salvation Army for help.

"Some of them do fall through the cracks in the system," said Mike McGarvin, founder of Poverello House, a center to aid Fresno's poor and homeless. "Sometimes you just fall off the capitalism merry-go-round."

Interviews with the San Joaquin Valley's emergency shelter directors and social workers reveal a common theme: There's a shortage of food, shelter and clothing to serve a growing population on the streets. Single mothers with children and younger single men are frequenting the valley's soup kitchens and rescue missions more than ever.

"The number of people seeking shelter has gone up in the last five to six years. And that's based on the emergency shelters and my observations," said the Rev. Robert Green of Stockton Metro Ministries, an activist for San Joaquin County's homeless.

At any one time, more than 2,000 people are without a home in San Joaquin County, said Tosh Saruwatari of the county's Mental Health Services. The new 100-bed Stockton Emergency Shelter opened this month to meet that demand, but Saruwatari and Green admit that the new shelter and existing facilities meet only part of the need.

"In the summer, the homeless families will camp out along the sloughs and in the public campgrounds. In the winter, you can't do that," Green said.

In the winter, valley shelters report a booming business.

40 People, 32 Beds

"As the weather gets worse, we serve about 7,000 meals a month," said Jack Hewitt of Modesto Gospel Mission.

Hewitt said he crams 40 people into 32 beds during a wet and cold night. "We're doing that because the need is so great and it's the only one in Modesto."

The Salvation Army in Fresno has a shelter program that strongly stresses financial counseling and eventual self-sufficiency, said Roger McLemore, the business administrator. The program, a form of transitional housing, encourages the homeless to generate their own income and move into their own dwelling.

McLemore said the plan is a vast improvement over the rescue mission concept, which he describes as "warehousing" street people.

"If you do not improve their situation, their ability to support themselves, then you are not doing anything but just getting them off the streets," he said.

Jobs for 25 Offered

Fresno's Poverello House offers jobs for 25 street people to help them regain skills so they can return to society eventually. They stay busy: The Poverello House served 265,870 free hot meals to Fresno homeless last year.

Three years earlier, just 127,672 dined at the soup kitchen, according to staff figures.

The hot meals, combined with distribution of food boxes that provided 66,100 family meals last year, are a main source of food for thousands in Fresno, said Poverello's executive director F. J. (Sonny) Mansmann.

Other governmental agencies couldn't fill the need, and Mansmann said Fresno's homeless otherwise would revert to the Depression days, knocking on doors for meals.

"That might have been OK in 1929, but today you'd probably get your head blown off," Mansmann said.

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