Home, for Now : City Cites Safety, but Founder Sees Racism in Plan to Close Shelter

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When night falls on the Zoe Christian Center in Oxnard and Alex Mendez has put his four sons to bed for the evening, he takes time to think.

As a homeless, 22-year-old single father, Mendez has a lot to think about.

Sometimes he sits outside in the dark and thinks about his wife, whom he left two months ago because, he said, she neglected the children. He also thinks about finding a good baby-sitter and enrolling in an automotive training course to become a mechanic.

But mostly he worries about his boys, who range in age from 16 months to 6 years.

"My first goal is just to get a roof over these kids' heads," he said, motioning to his sons, asleep in a room furnished with three beds and two couches. A bare bulb shined a dim light on their sleeping faces. "They're my first priority."

Mendez's story is only one of the 130 or so hard-luck tales played out in the 20 dimly lit, colorless rooms at Zoe, the county's only year-round homeless shelter.

Here live a diabetic in a wheelchair who was thrown out of her house by her parents; an immigrant who was evicted from an apartment because she has five children; and a woman who wanders around the shelter with a pail over her head because, she says, the world is too loud.

But the story of Zoe, a dull-green facility at 5th Street and Rose Avenue, may turn into a eulogy.

The city has declared the center unsafe because it stands next to a fertilizer plant where hazardous chemicals are stored. The City Council has refused to renew a special permit to allow Zoe to remain in an area zoned for industrial and manufacturing uses. The permit expired last April.

Fred Judy, founder of the center, says the city wants the center closed not for safety reasons but because he and Zoe's director are black and the center houses mostly Latinos--an allegation that city officials deny.

"They want us out because they are mad at these two little black boys on the corner of 5th Street and Rose Avenue," said Judy, a Vietnam veteran who said he will put up a fight. "I'm going to stay here until I die or until they drag me away."

The nondenominational center, on the site of a former labor camp, was founded in 1983 and is staffed by 15 full-time workers and about 20 volunteers who provide meals, counseling, a private school for children and job placement assistance for the county's growing homeless population.

The center's annual operating budget of about $700,000 comes from state, federal and private grants.

The rooms, which are sparsely furnished with donated beds, tables and sofas, each house up to 10 people. In some rooms, single people and small families share the simple accommodations. Larger families, like Mendez and his boys, get an entire room to themselves.

Most of the 130 residents are single mothers with young children who lived "on the edge of homelessness" for many years before losing their homes, jobs or family and turning to Zoe for help, said the Rev. Jim Gilmer, the center's director.

"When they get here, most people say: 'I never thought I'd end up here,' " he said.

A smaller number of clients live in cars and come to Zoe for free meals and showers, he said. "The real hard-core transients don't come here because we are too structured," he said. "We don't allow drugs or alcohol."

Residents with jobs must donate 30% of their income to the center. Those without employment are required to seek work or training or do daily chores, such as washing dishes in the kitchen or sweeping up around the center.

A day at Zoe begins at the cafeteria with breakfast, which is served at 7:30 a.m. and usually consists of oatmeal or cereal and powdered milk. Sugar for coffee is a luxury the center cannot afford.

Rooms are inspected every morning at 9:30 to make sure the occupants keep them neat. During the day, at least 20 children attend classes at the center's private school. Women wash laundry by hand in a large sink while children play on swings in the middle of the compound.

Because of repair work, the center currently has only one shower and residents must wait as long as two hours to use it. Three portable outhouses serve as the only toilets. Residents must form lines for those too.

Lunch is served at noon and dinner begins at 5 p.m. Both consist of whatever food is donated that day. On a recent visit, dinner included a carrot and beef stew, mashed potatoes and a slice of white bread.

Some residents complain that they are fed too much plain food, such as bread and potatoes. "I've been potatoed out," said 15-year-old Reina Garcia.

When the center runs out of donations, residents say they pool their savings to buy groceries, which they try to make last as long as possible.

All children must be indoors by 8:30 p.m., and adults must adhere to a 10:30 p.m. curfew.

The future of Zoe was jeopardized when the city Fire Department issued a report in June, 1988, that pointed out the dangers of housing people next door to toxic chemicals.

Their decision not to renew the center's permit was based on the zoning conflict, not racism, city officials said.

"We're doing all we can to help them out," said Mayor Nao Takasugi, who added that city staff members are trying to find a permanent location for Zoe.

However, city officials acknowledge that they asked the Assn. of Ventura County Cities in March to form a joint-powers agreement to help develop a government-run homeless shelter in Oxnard.

Gilmer, a former drug addict who said he lived the "same old ghetto-type story" before turning to the ministry, said he doesn't believe the city wants to help Zoe.

"They are not going to move us," he said. "We are going to stand our ground."

Gilmer said Zoe recently won a $116,000 state grant to renovate and improve the facility, but the state will not release the money until Zoe resolves its dispute with the city.

"Our shelter has a right to be somewhere," he said.

Judy, who began providing counseling for prostitutes in Oxnard in the early 1980s, said he decided to dedicate his life to the poor after experiencing a "beyond-and-back vision" in 1974 while recuperating from a brutal assault he suffered at a bar while in the military.

According to Judy, the most typical hard-luck stories at Zoe come from people like Laura Reyes and her family.

Reyes and her husband, Aurelio, brought their five children to Oxnard from Mexico seven months ago. "We wanted to move ahead. That's why we came to the United States," she said as she stood at the doorway of her room.

But Reyes said that when she arrived, her family was evicted from an apartment because the landlord said they had too many children. Her husband works in a nursery and cannot afford an apartment that can accommodate the whole family, she said.

At first, Reyes said, she had trouble adjusting to Zoe, where residents share almost everything. "In Mexico we have a home and a kitchen and here you don't have that," she said.

But with time, she grew comfortable with her surroundings. "At moments I feel like we are a family because we all want a home," she said.

For Mendez, Zoe was not his only alternative. He said he could have moved his sons in with his mother or his brother but decided he did not want to impose on them.

"This is just something I had to do," he said. "I knew what I was getting into."

Although he has no definite plan, Mendez said he may have an apartment lined up in the next two weeks. Once he finds someone to watch his boys, Mendez said he will begin a six-month automotive training course.

"I don't want to be a mechanic," he tells other residents. "I am going to be a mechanic."

Mendez said he gets his inspiration from a poem written for him by his younger brother, a poem he recites frequently.

"Although I am only one out of a million I am somebody and that makes me as good as the next man," he said. "There is nothing in this life I cannot do. There is no goal I cannot tackle and have success."

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