As night fell on Monday, Bill Harrigan and his wife, son and soon-to-be daughter-in-law sat in their lawn chairs forming a still life that would have compelled Norman Rockwell to paint one more face of the American family.
But the Harrigans--bathed in the eerie glow of a battery-powered television in the parking lot of Hansen Dam--are a different kind of American family.
They are among about 40 homeless men and women living out of their cars and campers at this north San Fernando Valley recreation area--unemployed, hungry and scared.
This is one of the more unusual faces of the problem that Proposition 95 proponent Conway Collis found in two days of living among the homeless.
Promote Ballot Initiative
Collis, a member of the State Board of Equalization, slept out with these families to dramatize the plight of an estimated 100,000 Californians now living on the streets and to promote the ballot initiative he has proposed.
Proposition 95, the Hunger and Homelessness Funding Initiative, would raise $50 million to $90 million annually from fines on health, safety and building code violations. The money would be funneled into various housing, food and job-training programs designed to help the homeless.
What Collis found was people searching for help in a system they say does not work.
People such as the homeless woman who went to the Better Valley Services office in Van Nuys on Tuesday looking for shelter for her and her two children.
“My boy has a cold from staying outside,” she said, telling Collis how she lost her hotel room after her husband was shot to death two weeks ago. “I feel bad dragging (the children) around. But I just don’t know what else to do.”
Area shelters were filled. And service workers at the private, nonprofit referral center told the woman just what she would have to do: bus trips to two government agencies and back to the Van Nuys service agency, where she possibly might get a voucher for a hotel that is an acknowledged center for drugs and prostitution and then maybe an outside shot at vouchers for another location where she might be able to get a meal.
“They don’t need anymore runaround, they need help,” shouted a friend who brought the woman and her children to the Van Nuys center. They left in disgust, no better off than when they had come.
“Can you believe this?” Collis asked in disbelief.
Another woman at the center explained that she was reluctant to get off a welfare program and take a minimum wage job because she would lose her health insurance benefits.
At the Valley Shelter, another location visited by Collis, one man explained how he would not be able to get an apartment under the Federal Emergency Management Act because he recently got a job.
If he stayed on a welfare program, he could get assistance from FEMA in paying first and last month’s rent on an apartment. But because he found a job, he could no longer qualify for the grant.
The emergency shelter where he has been sleeping only allows stays up to 30 days. He will have to leave Friday. He’s afraid that without a place to live, he will not be able to keep his new job.
“It’s a system designed to ensure failure,” Collis said. “It’s ineffective and inefficient. Not only can (the homeless) not deal with the system, but it’s so complex that people trying to help them can’t even explain it. . . . Can you imagine if a business was run like this?”
Some experiences were more personal.
“I was cold,” said Collis after his first night of sleeping under a single blanket in the roadside parking lot.
“We forget the importance of a warm, dry place to sleep,” he said. “When it’s lacking, it’s all you can think about. I kept wishing it would be morning.”
Dressed in old jeans and a T-shirt and carrying $10 cash for the two days, Collis was accompanied by Mike Childress, project director of the Valley Shelter.
“There is a sense of vulnerability, of being helpless” when living on the street, Collis said as it grew dark. Drug dealers and prostitutes also used the Hansen Dam park grounds at night.
Loud Fight Erupted
A pit bull was chained beside one camper.
In the wee hours of Monday night, a loud fight erupted between an acknowledged prostitute and another woman. “I couldn’t help thinking, ‘I hope this doesn’t involve guns,’ ” Collis said. A stray doberman pinscher awakened him on Tuesday night. “All I could think of was the pit bull,” Collis said. The doberman, though a nuisance, proved harmless.
Some observations confirmed widely held beliefs about the homeless.
“I was struck by the number of veterans,” Collis said. “Every man I spoke with was a vet.” Alcohol and drug problems were epidemic, he found.
And he found the sense of community on the street was as widespread as the homeless themselves. Joanne Teague, who was lucky enough to get a day labor job that paid $35, lent $2 to a hungry neighbor.
After two days on the streets, Collis concluded that even existing services could be more helpful if they were just better coordinated.
“It wouldn’t take much more coordination of services to make the difference between being able to help someone or not.”
In the case of the widow and her children, Collis asked why federal agencies could not distribute their forms to the independent service centers so they could all be filled out at once. Why couldn’t one agency communicate with another to speed the process? he asked.
“That’s the type of coordination that will be made possible through Proposition 95,” Collis said.
While Proposition 95 would not guarantee the creation of one-stop centers for social services, it would require more coordination of services within counties than exists today.
It would require counties seeking money under Proposition 95 to submit master plans for coordinating federal, state, county and local government programs with private sector agencies.
“Proposition 95 won’t help all of the people I met over the past couple of days and nights, but it is going to help those who want to work and just need a little extra help.”
Even without Proposition 95, Collis said, there are instances when the system does work.
“I’ve got applications in everywhere,” said Bill Harrigan’s wife, Joanne Teague, 46. Her son, Roger, 19, and his fiancee, Jonna Trott, told similar stories.
Collis and Childress suggested that the three go to the Valley Shelter on Tuesday for showers and a session with a job counselor. They did and came away with the immediate promise of employment with the Census Bureau.
At 7 a.m. on Wednesday, as Collis packed up his blanket, Teague was busy readying the family for work. “We’re going to make it,” Teague said. “I know we will.”