ESCAPING : Skid Row : A lost job or wrong turn pushed them into homelessness. Now, many are trying to find their way back out.
America’s homeless are set square in the public eye as a huddled mass of the drunk, drugged and mentally ill headed for Hades in a shopping cart.
That is the short, misguided view of the visible minority.
A truer, broader picture would be of the recovering homeless, who outnumber sidewalk sleepers 2-to-1, and for whom there are new and, one hopes, permanent exits from Skid Row.
Psychologists and social workers say thousands of Americans are escaping the streets:
* The Weingart Center, a downtown residential and treatment facility in the former El Rey Hotel, sees 7,000 Los Angeles homeless each month. “Six out of 10 people who leave our beds don’t go back to the streets,” says Weingart president Maxene Johnston.
Case History: Ismael San Diego. Admitted to Screening and Referral service, Weingart Center . . . stayed 60 days . . . working, saved, then moved into his own housing . . . as of May, working as a security officer .
* Two blocks from Weingart, Chrysalis helps the homeless emerge as the employed. “Last year, 1,000 persons were taken on as clients and 405 found positions,” reports Karen Hallerman, executive director of the nonprofit agency that occupies what used to be a Mexican restaurant.
Case History: Jenn y L. Laid off from job as a comptroller . . . has college education but search for new job complicated by father’s illness . . . trips back East to see him depleted savings . . . evicted, moved into residential shelter on Skid Row. January , attended job search class . . . February, found job in accounting department of a nationwide store . . . salary is $43,000 a year.
* Skid Row Development Corp., a cluster of several facilities, offers housing, emergency shelter and job placement. Seven of every 10 people served by the organization either reunite with families or move into their own housing, says president Martha Brown Hicks.
Case history: Donna R . . . two years college, a receptionist . . . married 14 years then divorced husband . . . lost job, lived in car for three months with daughter and baby on family welfare payment . . . came to Beyond Shelter . . . this agency for the homeless found one-bedroom apartment for her in Van Nuys . . . client found work.
No one, of course, believes America is winning the war on homelessness. But experts are confident that battles have been joined. While only scant statistics exist to support their point, anecdotal evidence and research into the dynamics and demographics of the homeless are impressive.
In one study, anthropologist Paul Koegel and psychologist Audrey Burham of the RAND Corp., are tracking 1,500 homeless Californians and identifying a new population of “the precariously housed . . . the precariously employed” who are only one paycheck removed from homelessness.
On the surface, their lives as individuals or families may appear settled and rock solid. They have a car, some furniture and an apartment. “But they miss one check for some reason and they do not have $1,000 in the bank to cover themselves,” Koegel says. “So they are on the street.”
These new homeless are in their mid-30s, mostly minorities and with some formal education. Koegel believes the homeless experience is episodic for two-thirds of the homeless population and only a small percentage remain homeless very long.
Thus the key to helping the many homeless who have only stumbled is a quick, strong and steady hand.
Studies such as RAND’s, other experts say, have inspired multilevel treatment programs for the homeless. Southern California centers for the homeless today routinely offer job placement, psychological counseling, accommodations, health screening, mail drops, telephone message services and even reading labs.
Without that broad menu, John, 32, believes he would still be on the streets.
Nobody knows he once was homeless--neither family nor former business associates. For John has a degree from UCLA and had an apartment in West Hollywood. He was a talent agent. And BMW owners just don’t wind up on the streets.
“I didn’t think it could happen to me,” John recalls.
But he didn’t think in combinations. He got hooked on cocaine and alcohol, then lost his job and health insurance. In 1989, John was hit by a truck, and hospital bills left nothing for rent.
“I was evicted,” John remembers. “Suddenly I had zip, zilch, zero. I couldn’t go to friends because I’d worn out my welcome after the accident. I also was too ashamed to tell them I was homeless.”
On that first night, with only $10 in his pocket, John survived until dawn by riding buses around Los Angeles.
“I spent the night asking myself: What am I going to do?” he says. “I finally found a bus going to the Social Services office and waited there until it opened.”
He was given money for essentials. At the Weingart Center he found a place to live. At Chrysalis he found a permanent address, then a job.
Sober for two years, John now works as a lecturer and lobbyist. The new employer knows nothing of his past, John explains, “because that shame has not left me.”
Many who work with the homeless say that freeing increasing numbers from the streets is a direct result of paying greater attention to those who ask for help.
At some agencies, especially at the Weingart Center, the homeless population divides into thirds. The categories seem callous to some, realistic to others.
“Have-Nots,” says Johnston, are the upper third--without jobs, without homes, but without other problems. They can be helped quickly.
“Cannots” are disabled by drugs, alcohol or mental illness. They can respond to treatment and may benefit from help.
“Will Nots” are the bottom third, the sidewalk campers who will not work, the derelicts and deranged who will not seek shelter. They, say some, cannot be helped.
“In a triage system you go to the people you can help,” says Johnston. Those homeless who can benefit from assistance, she believes, must be served first. The bottom third, Johnston added, “will self-destruct . . . go back to the streets, die of AIDS.”
Sociologists, educators, economists and psychologists know that yesterday’s homeless were down-and-outs, beggars and vagrants, lazy bums and the romantic hobo. The vast majority were white, elderly, ill-educated, alcoholic males.
Today’s homeless are a full slice of society and include college graduates, single-parent families with children, Vietnam veterans, professionals, businessmen, former politicians, ex-crack cocaine addicts and teen-age runaways.
A 1990 report of the U.S. Conference of Mayors showed that 34% of the modern homeless are families with children, 12% are single women and 3% are “unaccompanied youth.” More than 34% are white, 46% are black, and the remainder largely Latino and Asian. About 28% are mentally ill.
It follows that yesterday’s measures of emergency food and shelter are little more than overnight solace in this new community. That’s why the Los Angeles Mission, a stereotype for big city flop houses since the ‘40s, is assuming broader responsibilities.
It soon will open a new, $17-million headquarters on Skid Row. The 307-bed facility will offer a one-year rehabilitation program for the homeless with a curriculum that includes substance-abuse therapy, medical and dental treatment, job schooling and placement, reading and language programs, even a weight room and running track for physical recovery.
“Three hots and a cot just doesn’t do it any more,” says Marshall McNott, president of the Los Angeles Mission Foundation. “Now we’re starting to treat all the causes, not simply one or two symptoms . . . to restore the mental balance and the self-esteem that the homeless have lost.”
Jenny L. was a typical Have-Not.
Last year, after losing her comptroller’s job, she was evicted from her two-bedroom Brentwood apartment and had to sell her car. She saw $25,000 in savings disappear on motel rent, food, and air fares to New Jersey to see her sick father.
Jenny still can’t accept why she became homeless: “I don’t do drugs, I don’t drink, I’m a good Christian . . . but a molehill turned into a mountain and in three months I went from having everything, to being without a dollar to my name.”
Jenny remembers feeling “frightened, demoralized, angry, bitter . . . and treated by friends as though I had leprosy.”
Her Waterloo was Wednesday, Dec. 5, 1990: “I was due to start a new job the next day. I got locked out of my room in a Hollywood hotel and they wouldn’t let me get my clothes until I paid $120. I couldn’t get the money until I went to work. I couldn’t go to work without my clothes. Catch-22.
“I went down to the welfare office and said, ‘Hey, you people have got to help me.’ ”
Jenny, 39, got a room at a Skid Row shelter. Through Chrysalis, she found another job. That was eight months ago, and Jenny is still recovering.
“When you go from A to Z in three months, it is going to take a long time to get back from Z to even D,” she says. She’s still without a car and her home remains a motel room. “But this time next month, I should have an apartment, and by this time next year I should be back in the mainstream.”
The beginning of the end of homelessness starts with a job. So says Martin Early, 61, a retired businessman who volunteers his time and experiences to Chrysalis. But it is critical, he says, that the homeless find their own jobs.
The benefit of Chrysalis, believes Early, “is empowering clients to take care of themselves.”
Founded in 1984, Chrysalis is considered a national model of assistance for homeless seeking work. A nonprofit agency, it does not offer meals, shelter or treatment. It does offer clients a permanent address for mail, free telephones for trekking through Help Wanted columns, and a 24-hour answering service for callbacks.
Hygiene kits--toothbrushes, soap, shampoo and razors--are available to present the best face for job interviews. So are fresh clothes, and bus tokens for getting to interviews.
There are an estimated 40,000 homeless in Los Angeles and Orange counties, 6,000 in the San Diego area.
For several years, gentle Joe Clark was among the homeless of Los Angeles and San Diego. Drunks urinated on him when when he slept in Skid Row doorways. Awake, attempts to start conversations sometimes ended in a beating followed by sexual abuse.
Clark couldn’t fight back. He was mentally ill, a paranoid schizophrenic who couldn’t afford Stelazine and Xanax. Voices inside his head said he was being punished. “You’re a bad seed,” they scolded.
To Clark, a runaway from a dysfunctional family, it certainly seemed that way. At 15 he underwent treatment at the Colorado State Hospital. A few years later he was in San Diego, panhandling tourists in Balboa Park and dressing in clothes he found on the beaches.
In 1984 he hitchhiked to Los Angeles and Skid Row. After the assaults he became obsessed with safety. When he couldn’t find it, he decided to stay awake forever.
“I was awake for four days,” Clark says. “Walking and sitting places. No sleep, no food. Then I passed out in a doorway. When I woke up I started asking people where I could find food and be safe.”
Clark was taken to a drop-in center for LAMP--Los Angeles Men’s Place. At the Weingart Center he received medication, treatment, counseling and a new hold on life.
With the medication came reason, and the voices stopped. With counseling, he says, came the realization that he was much better than what he had become.
“Learning control,” says Clark, “that was the cornerstone. And being with other people like me so that we then become a community of relatives.”
He was recently named manager of a new LAMP facility. As part of the promotion, Clark, 34, traded his Hollywood apartment for a manager’s residence at LAMP Lodge.
He recently walked its new corridors, checking the finishing touches. “It’s quite a long way from a drop-in center to this,” he says. Then he chuckles: “I guess it means I’ve been promoted to Skid Row.”
To get the homeless off the streets, believes Johnston of the Weingart Center, treatment and service must be firm and swift. Today’s homeless, she says, “have a window of a week before they are so disabled by the thought of being homeless, the exits become limited.”
Some argue that Johnston’s results are biased by serving only “the cream” of the homeless. They say advances are barely noticeable among the general homeless population, particularly the mentally ill.
“For one success we see, five more walk in to take their place,” notes Susan Dempsey, founder and head of Step Up on Second, a Santa Monica storefront day enter for the mentally ill. “We’re treading water still.”
Yet a win column does exist. Angie Jones has written her name there.
Little good marked her early life. Just a swarm of adults and 17 children jammed into one home in a decaying pocket of Cleveland. “From the day I was born there was noise and fighting,” she recalls. “Then drinking and more fighting.”
At 16 she ran. To Georgia. To Virginia. Often with men, sometimes alone, but always with drugs and booze. Jones married along the way. Two children eventually went back to Cleveland and their grandparents. Finally, she found a job among the nomadic carnies of Kissle’s Rides and Shows on the East Coast.
Jones and a friend saved $2,000 that they thought would support them until they could find jobs in Los Angeles. It didn’t. It lasted for 13 weeks of fast food and a room at the Cecil Hotel on Skid Row where Jones realized her big mistake.
“I didn’t have any ID.” she says. “No driver’s license, no Social Security card, not even a birth certificate. Without ID you don’t exist and if you don’t exist you don’t get work.”
Finally, homeless and alone, Jones bounced from mission to abandoned building. She wandered the streets at night, sleeping in parks during the day when it was a little safer.
Jones looked around. She saw the scabbed and the mumbling, the drugged and the stabbed. “I either had to get off my butt . . . or continue like this and become like them,” she decided.
She looked at herself. Despite a high school education and some work experiences, she clearly was a derelict. “It doesn’t matter that you’re not the one sleeping in doorways,” she concluded. “I wasn’t laying flat down. But I was out there.”
In December, Jones decided to come in from the streets.
At Transition House, a medium-term shelter operated by the Skid Row Development Corp., she found a home and counseling. The shelter gave her “friendship, support and honesty, all those things that had been lacking in my life,” she says.
Her motivation grew with each thought of her children. They must not share her unhappy start; they deserved a settled mother and a permanent place.
Transition House referred Jones to Chrysalis, where a counselor telephoned to Ohio for a duplicate birth certificate and other papers.
Jones now has a job as a live-in house-parent at the Shepherd’s Guest Home, a Los Angeles facility for mentally ill adults. It pays $700 a month with room and meals.
Jones, 30, says she has been off drugs and alcohol for nine months. Once she has earned a home for her children, she wants to become a registered nurse.
“It’s still a long ways off,” she say. “But a window is there and it’s open and I can see the light. So I’m not going to give up.”