Shelter Ready and Waiting for the Cold : Homeless: National Guard Armory can house 140 people as soon as temperatures fall to 40 degrees or there is a 50% chance of rain.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The cots are waiting. The food is on the shelf. The staff is on call. Only the weather forecasters, so far, are failing to cooperate.

With none of the bureaucratic hitches that have beleaguered the city's winter shelter program for the homeless in years past, everything has been in place since Nov. 11 to begin serving up two warm meals, a night's sleep and a shower to 140 people daily at the National Guard Armory on Victory Boulevard.

To hold down costs through the late fall, the financially stretched program will go into effect only when there is a forecast of temperatures falling to 40 degrees or a 50% chance of rain. Despite the slight precipitation last week, the forecast didn't meet the criteria.

"When we consulted with the National Weather Service, they were predicting 40% chance of rain," said Jay Glassman, homeless coordinator for Los Angeles County, which coordinates its shelter program with the city of Los Angeles. After 10:30 a.m., it is too late to set the complicated process in motion, Glassman said.

In contrast, the county shelter in the Antelope Valley, where temperatures are lower, has been open nearly every day since Nov. 1, Glassman said.

The addresses and hours of operation of all city and county shelters that are active is updated daily at 11 a.m. on the county's cold-weather shelter hot line, which can be reached by calling (800) 548-6047.

During the second phase of the program, beginning Dec. 13, all eight county and six city shelters will open nightly through March 31, regardless of the weather forecast.

City and county officials acknowledge that the shelter program provides for only a small fraction of the homeless population, estimated by the watchdog agency Shelter Partnerships to be between 43,231 and 77,141 in Los Angeles County. Throughout the county, there are 8,200 shelter beds open year-round and 2,000 extra in the winter, Glassman said.

In the San Fernando Valley, the disparity is great because the National Guard Armory at 17330 Victory Blvd. is the only winter shelter.

City homeless coordinator Gene R. Jackson said the armory's 140 beds have historically been taken almost every night it is open.

"The 140 beds we have allocated is only a drop in the bucket," Jackson said. "The need really outweighs the amount of funds we have to service the homeless."

He estimated that at least twice as many beds would be used if they were available. The shelters would be overrun nightly, he said, except for the fact that not all homeless people want to use them.

"You have some people who choose not to seek the service, for whatever reason," Jackson said. "It could be they don't want to be tied into rules and regulations. It could be they are in some kind of encampment situation where they would just as soon stay away."

Both the city and county finance the shelters from a variety of sources, primarily federal block grants and emergency funds.

The city will pay up to $1.44 million to community organizations to run its six shelters, two of them National Guard armories provided free by the state. The funds pay for food, salaries, bus transportation and rent where free space is not available.

The contract in the Valley is with the Los Angeles Family Housing Corp., a nonprofit agency that also operates two year-round family shelters, including the Norman Louis Valley Shelter in North Hollywood. The Family Housing Corp. will receive $10 per occupied bed nightly up to $132,600, said its executive director, Nathaniel Hutton. Agencies that must rent space receive $12 per bed nightly.

Because the armory is the Valley's only cold-weather shelter, L.A. Family Housing Corp. runs a shuttle service to pick up the homeless.

On nights the shelters are open, two 15-seat vans will transport people from 5 to 8:30 p.m. from four sites: Van Nuys City Hall, 14410 Sylvan St., Van Nuys; Valley Community Clinic, 5648 Vineland Ave., North Hollywood; El Centro De Amistad, 7024 Deering Ave., Canoga Park, and Hansen Dam, corner of Foothill Boulevard and Osborne Street, Lake View Terrace.

Use of the armories--four by the county and two by the city--has been a boon for the shelter program because the state does not collect rent. But over the years, it has also produced headaches.

In 1991, the six armories were not available for the homeless program because of the Persian Gulf War. That year, the Valley program was set up in a hangar at Van Nuys Airport at a cost of $20,000 to install toilets, a kitchen and heating.

The next year, Gov. Pete Wilson approved use of the armories on Nov. 1, leaving city officials scrambling for other locations until the last minute.

Although the approval went smoothly this year, the future of the armory shelters is in doubt. The National Guard has notified the city and county that the use of the six armories for homeless shelters will be canceled after next year, Glassman said.

"The notice was that the program was never intended to be a permanent use of the armories," he said.

Assemblyman Rusty Areias (D-Salinas) has written a bill (AB 1808) that would extend the availability of the armories indefinitely.

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