Because of a surge in the number of homeless people seeking county vouchers for motel rooms this winter, two National Guard armories in the San Gabriel Valley have been added to the list of facilities available for use as emergency shelters on cold and rainy nights.
An armory in Pomona was opened to the homeless Thursday, when Los Angeles County's cold weather shelter program was activated for the first time since Feb. 15. A Monrovia armory had also been scheduled for use but remained closed because Salvation Army workers expected to operate the facility were out of town, a county spokesman said.
"They assured us by (Friday) they will be available," said Larry Johnson, a spokesman for the county's homeless coordination office.
The expanded use of armories comes as homeless program officials are preparing to request extra funds from the Board of Supervisors for the second time this winter.
Despite the recent stretch of warm weather, the number of homeless people seeking emergency shelter from the county has nearly tripled from last year. The shelter program has already received one supplemental allocation from the supervisors--$325,000 on Jan. 31--but only $50,000 remains, and officials are planning to ask the board for another $125,000 on Tuesday, Johnson said.
If approved, the new allocation will bring funding for for the cold weather program this season to $775,000.
"I think the $125,000 will be ample to get us through," Johnson said.
The 2-year-old shelter program runs from Nov. 1 to March 31. After that date, officials will review the operation, Johnson said.
"We have to redesign the program so we can bring the cost down," he said. "It really is much more expensive than anyone had envisioned."
The county provides emergency shelter when the overnight temperature is expected to dip below 40 degrees or when the forecast calls for temperatures below 50 degrees with a 50% chance of rain.
The county has offered shelter at National Guard armories in Long Beach and Culver City since last winter and in West Los Angeles since December. The county also houses homeless people at a federal shelter in Bell.
The armories accommodate from 150 to 300 people each, and those in Long Beach and Culver City have been filled to capacity when opened.
Officials said the two San Gabriel Valley armories were made available after word spread among homeless people that two social service agencies there--in El Monte and Pomona--would provide them with free housing in motels, rather than in the mass shelters available elsewhere. Hundreds of people flocked to the two agencies.
As a result, only homeless families with children now will get the motel vouchers in the San Gabriel Valley, officials said. The Pomona office is directing single adults to the armory in that community, while the El Monte office will send homeless singles to the Monrovia armory.
In downtown Los Angeles and coastal communities such as Santa Monica, where there are high concentrations of homeless adults, the county from the start of the program has housed single adults in the armories, while giving families motel vouchers, according to Verta Nash, coordinator of the county's efforts to help the homeless.
But in the San Gabriel Valley, where last winter 85% of the homeless seeking assistance were families, the county had been issuing motel vouchers to all homeless people.
"We feel that group shelter is not conducive to families, so we voucher them to hotels," Nash said.
The problem in the San Gabriel Valley this winter apparently arose when homeless adults in a wide area learned that they could get the more desirable motel housing there, she said.
Drawn From Afar
The voucher applicants have come from as far as Long Beach, Santa Monica and San Bernardino County, authorities said. In contrast to last year, more than 90% of the homeless served in the San Gabriel Valley this winter have been single men and women, Nash said.
"It appears that the numbers have increased significantly out there due to people coming from San Bernardino County," which has no shelter program for the homeless, Nash said.
In the El Monte service center operated by Catholic Charities, the staff processed more than 300 voucher applications a day when the bad weather program was activated. At the Pomona Neighborhood Center, which also has a contract with the county to administer the program, an average of 50 adults and 10 families streamed through each day.
Paying $16 a night a person for motel rooms, county officials discovered that the cost for the voucher program was escalating faster than they had expected. Complicating matters is an unusually cold winter, which triggered more frequent demand for emergency shelter, despite the recent warm spell.
More Cold Days
For example, in the San Gabriel Valley, the county had to activate the cold weather program for only 24 days last winter. This winter, the program has been activated on 57 days.
So far this season, the county has made available more than 20,000 bed spaces, nearly double the 10,264 for all of last winter, Nash said.
Housing the homeless in armories, at $9 to $10 a person a night, is a more cost-effective alternative, Nash said.
The county's decision to make use of the extra armories was welcomed by the directors of the service centers.
Alma Vielma said her El Monte office has been overwhelmed by the logistics of administering the voucher program. With just one full-time staff member, Vielma has had to recruit some of the homeless clients to help her issue the vouchers, telephone motels to check for vacancies and distribute free food.
The El Monte office, which has a $49,000 county contract to administer the shelter program, has already spent more than $143,000, Vielma said. The agency is scheduled to amend its contract with county officials today, said Greg Fitzgerald, associate director of Catholic Charities.
Agencies Back Out
Running the shelter program is so demanding that nearly a dozen agencies that helped administer the program last year backed out this winter, officials said.
"Its' a very difficult program without having armories open," Fitzgerald said.
Caught off-guard Thursday when the county announced that the Monrovia armory was not ready for use, Vielma had to refer homeless clients to the Pomona armory.
Dorothy Kumar, director of the Pomona Neighborhood Center, a nonprofit community service organization, said use of the Pomona armory will help bring costs under control.
Last winter, her office distributed $13,000 in hotel vouchers. This year, the cost is above $100,000, she said.
Despite the limitation on distribution of motel vouchers in the San Gabriel Valley, all homeless people seeking assistance in Lancaster-- where the county has been unable to find a social service agency to oversee an armory shelter--will continue to be issued such vouchers in cold weather, Nash said. But there has been no flocking of the homeless to that area because it is remote, officials said.