Out of the Cold : Culver City Turns Armory Into Shelter for Homeless on Rainy, Chilly Nights

Times Staff Writer

Culver City has converted a National Guard Armory into its first shelter for the homeless on cold and rainy nights, and an average of 130 people a night have shown up to eat a hot meal, watch videos and sleep.

The armory, 10808 Culver Blvd., is one of several in the state opened as shelters by order of Gov. George Deukmejian. His 1987 proclamation made the armories available as housing for the homeless when temperatures fall below 40 degrees or below 50 degrees with a 50% chance of rain.

The Salvation Army operates the shelter under a contract with the county, supplying cots, blankets, personal hygiene supplies and hot meals, said Marilyn Leque, program coordinator for the Salvation Army in Santa Monica, which operates the Culver City shelter. The shelter is one of several in Los Angeles County financed primarily by a $325,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Persistent cold weather has kept the shelter open almost every night since it opened Dec. 15, Leque said.


120 Seek Shelter

On a chilly night last week, 115 men and five women sought out the shelter.

“I froze for three days before I found out about it,” said Joseph Pembelton, who had been sleeping on the beach.

A 26-year-old man named Mark, who declined to give his last name, said that in cold weather, homeless people will consume alcohol in lieu of food for its supposed warming effect, then spend hours on some nights looking for a warm place to sleep.

“It keeps you from being a prospect in the work force,” he said. “You’re concerned about the most basic of human needs.

“The hazard of being out in the cold, it just wears on you. It breaks you down. It becomes a part-time job just sifting around to find a place and material to keep you warm.”

Although Culver City has no serious homelessness problem, the city was receptive when approached by the county about using its armory as a shelter, said Verta Nash, homeless coordinator for the county.

Syd Kronenthal, director of human services for Culver City, said the city has never had a homeless shelter, but several local families already have called offering free clothes. “Culver City has been about as warm and as sensitive as any city could be,” he said.

“Everybody empathizes and sympathizes with the plight of the homeless, but nobody wants them around them,” he said. “But we haven’t run into that in Culver City. To the best of my knowledge, we haven’t had one complaint.”

Three other armories--in Van Nuys, Long Beach and West Los Angeles--are being used as homeless shelters, Nash said. The West Los Angeles armory, 1300 Federal Ave., houses about 60 people a night, most of them from West Hollywood.

The Culver City shelter is for adults only, but parents with children are given hotel vouchers. Applicants who are mentally or physically ill are also given vouchers, as are the frail elderly, Nash said.

People who want shelter are picked up at the Clare Foundation’s Sober Inn in Santa Monica, where they are screened for mental health and other considerations. They are then taken to the armory on buses provided by the city of Santa Monica.

After being searched for weapons, drugs and alcohol, they can take showers, watch videos such as “Three Men and a Baby,” “E.T.” and “Rambo III,” and relax until dinner. The meal, which usually consists of soup and sandwiches, is served when all of the buses have arrived. A snack is served at 9:30. Breakfast is oatmeal.

Washing Expenses

Capt. Alan Robinson, commanding officer of the Santa Monica corps of the Salvation Army, said one of the biggest expenses is washing the 300 blankets, which costs $3 each. The people who use the blankets are asked to put them in bags labeled with their names so they can use the same blankets on successive nights. If the weather warms up and the shelter doesn’t open on successive nights, the blankets are washed.

Robinson said the shelter is looking for a physician who can donate time. Although nurses are on call for emergencies, many of the homeless have chronic illnesses that could grow worse.

Charles Hunt, 76, who said he usually sleeps in the woods near the Bel-Air Country Club, said the shelter was a welcome change. “I’d have come here last night if I knew it was open,” he said one night last week. “It was chilly last night, but it’s warm in here. They feed pretty good, too. It’s not bad for free. Can’t complain.”