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Armory Use for Homeless May Expand

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a substantial shift in state policy, Gov. Pete Wilson is prepared to approve the expanded use of National Guard armories throughout California as round-the-clock winter shelters for the homeless, regardless of temperatures, it was learned Wednesday.

The plan calls for opening the armories from about mid-November until late February or early March, depending on the need and severity of winter weather, sources said. Unlike previous years, outside temperatures will not play a role in determining when homeless people will be permitted to take shelter in the armories, they said.

Gubernatorial press secretary Bill Livingstone declined to discuss the development, but he said Wilson plans to make an announcement soon on sheltering the homeless during the winter months.

Under policies started in 1987 by then-Gov. George Deukmejian, armories are made available as overnight shelters for homeless people when temperatures are expected to drop to 40 degrees or less, or when weather forecasts call for a 50% chance of rain combined with a low of 50 degrees.

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Critics have long contended that the basic 40-degree threshold was artificial. “What’s the difference if you are cold and homeless at 40 degrees or 41 degrees?” asked one advocate for the homeless.

In past winters, the homeless were required to leave the armories during the day, but could return at night. During last year’s killer freeze, some armories remained open 24 hours a day. Sources said that under the Wilson proposal, the armories would stay open 24 hours in areas where local guard commanders and county emergency service officials agreed that it was necessary.

State, federal and local funds, coupled with private sources, will continue to pay for food, maintenance and other costs of operating the three-month program. Last winter, homeless people took shelter in about 40 of the Guard’s 100 California armories, many of them night after night.

Kay Knepprath, lobbyist for the California Homeless and Housing Coalition, and Michael Dieden of the Business-Government Counsel to End Homelessness, were among several advocates who lobbied the Wilson Administration for expanded use of the armories.

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Knepprath said she pitched the notion that a shelter operated continuously for 60 or 120 days without regard to temperatures would provide a base from which a homeless person could look for work without also having to search for a meal or a place to sleep.

Dieden, who said he founded a “Next Step” program in Venice for the homeless four years ago, said operating the armories as shelters without regard to temperatures would provide a single site for social services to offer specialized help to the homeless.

“Case management people would come in, for instance, and get abusers into alcoholic and drug programs and get mothers with children into various programs,” he said.


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