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Call, Wait and Hope--The Homeless Follow a Cold-Weather Ritual

Times Staff Writer

Without fail, James Smith makes two important telephone calls every day. The toll-free calls determine whether he will have a roof over his head for the night.

“1-800-548-6047, 1-800- 242-4612,” Smith said, reciting from memory the hot-line numbers for Los Angeles County’s Cold Weather Homeless Shelter Program and “Infoline,” which makes referrals to social service agencies.

When it’s chilly enough for the county to activate the cold weather program, Smith and scores of other homeless people make their way to a Catholic Charities service center in El Monte. There they line up and wait, sometimes for three hours or more, for vouchers that give them a free motel room for the night.

“I’ve been sleeping in the park, or I sleep in a friend’s car,” said Smith, who moved to California from Philadelphia for a warehouse job that never came through. He has been living on the street since October.

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Other homeless people repeat a similar ritual, walking or driving to the service center daily in hopes of spotting a hand-written sign announcing that the shelter program is on.

Because the number of homeless congregating in the San Gabriel Valley to apply for motel vouchers has tripled since last winter, the county has decided to begin housing homeless adults in National Guard armories.

A Logistics Nightmare

Homeless families will continue to receive motel vouchers, which have been a logistics nightmare for the El Monte service center, which has issued as many as 300 to 350 vouchers a day. The system has been abused by some of the homeless, who have sold their rooms, or used them for drug-dealing and prostitution, authorities said.

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Others use it only until they can get back on their feet, officials said.

“We were at the point where we were on the street or were one step away from being on the street,” said Linda Jackling, who sought assistance at the center after she and her husband, Jerry, moved here from San Bernardino County and ran out of money while looking for work.

After the number of homeless turning up at her office more than tripled, Alma Vielma, director of the service center in El Monte, began hiring some of the homeless to help her issue vouchers. Jackling was one of four homeless people she hired recently.

Would Work for Nothing

Jackling and other homeless workers are paid $6 an hour when there is enough money in the center’s budget, but several said they would work for free.

“My husband and I are very grateful for what she did for us,” said Jackling. “This is my way of saying thank you to her.”

The Pomona Neighborhood Center, which also has a contract with the county to administer the cold-weather program, has begun sending people to a Pomona armory.

The El Monte center is to send homeless single adults to a Monrovia armory the next time the cold weather program is activated. These are the two major centers in the San Gabriel Valley where vouchers are issued.

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The county activates the program when overnight temperatures are expected to drop below 40 degrees, or when it is expected to be below 50 degrees with a 50% or greater chance of rain. The program was started in 1987 after two homeless people in the county died of exposure.

For Vielma, the county’s decision to house single adults in an armory was good news. The move means less paper work and strain on her only full-time staff member, Angela Grajeda.

In addition to keeping an eye on the cold weather program, Grajeda must also juggle the center’s other service programs, including one that offers food assistance and another that helps the needy pay overdue gas bills.

Homeless Volunteers

When only motel vouchers were being issued to all homeless people who asked for them in San Gabriel Valley, the El Monte service center was buzzing with activity.

At 11 a.m., county officials announced that the program would be on for the night. Well before the center began issuing vouchers at 2 p.m., about 50 homeless adults had gathered outside the center.

To maintain order outside and control the number of applicants in the center’s two-room office, Vielma posted Carlos Marciel at the door. Marciel, 33, and his girlfriend, Diane Briggs, are both homeless but are hoping that the shelter program will be the helping hand they need to get back in the work force full time.

The two had volunteered to help Vielma issue the vouchers. While Marciel kept the crowd under control and ushered people into the tiny office as names were called, Briggs passed out free bread and peanut butter.

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In the center of the room sat Vielma, who reviewed a list of 20 or so people who had been kicked out of rooms by motel managers the last time they used a voucher. Some were evicted for being rowdy, others for letting guests stay in their rooms, and still others for selling drugs or engaging in other illegal activities, Vielma said.

“The hotel doesn’t want you back,” Vielma told one youth. After a moment’s hesitation, the young man stammered, “They got the wrong person.”

“You understand, there are rules,” Vielma said firmly. She sent him out and called the hotel manager, who decided to give the young man another chance but warned that if he caused trouble again, his brother would also be banned from the motel. Vielma went on to the next name on the list.

“The toilet overflowed and they tried to blame me,” a man with a goatee told Vielma. “I didn’t do it.” Vielma stared at him wearily and sent him out of the room.

Just then, she spotted a young couple leaving with their baby. She called out to Briggs, “Hey, Diane, give them more bread.”

In one corner of the room, Jackling was busy filling out vouchers by hand. She paused every now and then to massage away her writer’s cramp. So many people apply for shelter that the center used to run out of voucher pads. To save paper work, the center began drawing up one list for each of the dozen or so participating motels. Each motel receives a list of names at the end of the day.

A Lucky Break

In another corner, Tony Bach, another homeless worker, was on the telephone almost non-stop checking with motel managers about vacancies. The managers insist that the center call them to discuss the placement of each homeless person so they have the opportunity to reject those they remember as troublemakers.

Bach, 38, became homeless after he moved from New York in December and ran out of money before finding a job. The shelter program has made it possible for him to continue his job search, he said. “I was able to get a phone number and get referrals,” Bach said. His lucky break actually came while he was helping with the voucher program at the El Monte service center.

After fixing a public address system for a community service group that was using the parking lot outside the center, the group director offered Bach a job on his staff.

Jackling also received some good news while working at the center. As she was scribbling away, drafting motel vouchers, she got a call that brightened her face.

“Jerry got a job!” she said, beaming.


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