Standing Room Only : Shelter Is 'Packed' Year After Opening

Times Staff Writer

The 42-year-old man, his wife and two sons made their home in the family car and cheap motels before they landed in Norwalk at the Rio Hondo Temporary Home two months ago.

The thin man with a faded blue cap and a rose tattoo on his arm asked not to be identified because he is embarrassed to be at the shelter for homeless families. He works full-time as a packaging and stock clerk, but $6.40 an hour doesn't go far.

His wife plans to take a computer course at Cerritos College and then find a job to help the family get back on its feet. They left their last permanent home, a rented house in South Whittier, about a year and a half ago, he said.

"It's hard with what I make and her not working," he said. "If she gets a job. . . ."

More than 100 homeless people live with their hopes and dreams at the shelter, a two-story building on the tree-lined grounds of Metropolitan State Hospital on Norwalk Boulevard north of Imperial Highway.

Average 116 Each Night

Business is brisk a year after the shelter opened its doors. An average of 116 people stayed each night during the fiscal year that ended June 30, according to shelter records.

"This place is packed," executive director Michael Elias said. "We have a waiting list of people trying to get in."

The Rio Hondo Temporary Home seems to be a world away from the shelters of Los Angeles' Skid Row, where the smell of sweat and urine turns back all but the most desperate.

On a recent evening, youths played basketball in the shelter's back yard. Eight children got ready to play a variation of hide-and-seek. And a couple of adults barbecued.

The 18,659-square-foot shelter contains 27 bedrooms for families and three dormitories for single men and women.

The hallways are well lighted and have blue, gray and beige carpeting. A large television room with a video recorder adds to the family atmosphere, as does a room with children's toys and playpens.

The bedrooms are small and plain. Bathroom and shower facilities are shared. There are two kitchens with dining rooms.

Families accounted for about 36% of the shelter's residents in 1988-89, while single mothers and their children represent another 30%, according to a shelter report.

Plans to Continue Schooling

Audrey Greer, 32, a single mother, arrived in California last month with $110 in her pocket and her 16-year-old son at her side. A cocktail waitress in Savannah, Ga., Greer boarded a bus for South Gate with plans to get a job as a secretary and continue her schooling. She ended up at the shelter several days later when her money ran out.

"I'm just looking for a new beginning," Greer said. "I know L.A.'s such a large city, someone out there is going to give me a chance."

Elias says the Rio Hondo shelter is different because it gives residents a chance to get back on their feet with job counseling and placement programs.

"It's my personal belief that people must work." Elias said. "This soup-kitchen mentality, the handout thing, is abhorrent to me."

About 30% of the residents have been alcoholics or drug addicts, Elias said, or have a criminal background that led to homelessness. Others are single mothers or the working poor who do not earn enough money to make ends meet.

About 16% of the families at the shelter have at least one member permanently employed. Nearly 20% receive welfare.

The homeless are allowed to stay at the shelter for 60 days. Working singles and those who receive welfare must pay $50 a week to defray costs, while families stay for free. Residents are required to perform some chores, such as cleaning the kitchen or vacuuming the hallways.

New arrivals are given five days to get settled and cope with the reality of being homeless.

"The biggest problem is depression," said Frederick LaGrone, 31, who is staying at the shelter with his two daughters. "They're lost, just staring into space, really."

Adults are required to enter a program that helps them find a job, save money and secure their own housing.

Some in Vocational Training

They receive instruction on resume writing, interviewing and other job-hunting skills. Some residents enroll in vocational training programs, Elias said.

Once a resident secures a job, he is required to open a bank account and to save 50% of each paycheck. Counseling on money management is provided. Motivational and other seminars are offered. There is a support group for recovered alcoholics and drug users.

There is day-care, summer day camp and a summer employment program for children and teen-agers. Nearly 50% of the residents are younger than 18.

The children appear to adjust more easily than adults to group living, residents said, but they also have problems.

One 12-year-old boy with a freckled face and pale blue eyes said he makes friends with adults because there aren't many youngsters his age at the shelter. He said he is often bored and one day would like to live with his parents and brother in a home of their own.

"You have to make the best out of what's here," he said. "Who cares if they're adults?"

Many Find Jobs

Elias said about 85% of the families and singles who come to the shelter leave with a job. In April, May and June, the months for which job statistics were available, 46 shelter residents found jobs, according to a shelter report.

Job program director Sheryl Semans said most of the jobs residents find pay $6 to $12 an hour.

Elias and residents said life at the shelter generally runs smoothly. But Elias said he occasionally has to kick out residents for drug or alcohol use or possession of weapons. A fight erupts now and then, and children squabble.

But the shelter has created no notable law enforcement problems for the state hospital, which has its own police force, spokesman Jack Eubanks said.

The Rio Hondo shelter spent about $355,000 in 1988-89 and has budgeted $399,000 for this year, Elias said. Most of the money comes from the federal government and the cities of Downey, Norwalk, Pico Rivera, Santa Fe Springs, Whittier, area church groups and civic organizations.

Left With Deficit

But the shelter, like its residents, is trying to weather lean times of its own, having ended the 1988-89 fiscal year about $30,000 in the red, Elias said.

Elias described the deficit as a cash-flow problem, which he hopes to overcome this year through more aggressive fund raising. Shelter officials launched a fund-raising campaign earlier this month, asking about 400 past supporters to donate $7 a month.

So far, about 30 people have responded with donations or pledges ranging into the hundreds of dollars, office manager Betty Shaw said. A La Mirada real estate broker has been donating 10% of her commissions to the shelter since last fall, Shaw said.

The 12-year-old boy said he is thankful for what those donations provide.

"This place is really nice," he said. "It's better than being in the street. I think we're fortunate."

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