COLUMN ONE : Forcing the Homeless to Help Themselves : To get in, boarders must be sober. To stay, they must work hard. ‘You can’t have no fun here--no sex, no alcohol, nothing,’ one man laments. But shelter offers a chance to beat the odds.
Jack Hatch is 53 and mentally ill, but he no longer roams the streets, wild-haired and muttering. He has found a home in an old U.S. Army warehouse, 40,000 square feet of concrete floors, dusty rafters and dim fluorescent tubes.
He shares it with more than 200 other boarders, nearly all of them drug addicts, drunks or felons. A few are deranged. Together, they constitute an odd society--a teeming, noisy, loving, hostile, backbiting and hopeful band of men and women brought together only by failure.
Outcasts all, they flow into the Salvation Army’s vast Bell Shelter every afternoon, well before dinner, and flow out again every morning after breakfast. They get beds, showers and hot meals, but the shelter is not just another flophouse.
Secluded in a gated industrial zone seven miles southeast of Los Angeles’ Skid Row in the city of Bell, it is a startling and unlikely prototype: a sort of repair factory for broken souls. The machinery of deliverance clatters and lurches like a Rube Goldberg contraption, an unwieldy array of schedules, rules, obligations and incentives.
Everyone has a duty or a place on some unwritten flowchart. Hatch, for example, folds towels and barks commands in his booming baritone to keep order in the meal line. Regulars used to call him “Sgt. Hatch” before his diligence won him a promotion last year. That’s when he proudly began sporting on his collar the gold bars of a lieutenant.
On any given evening, the roll call of Hatch’s roommates is a Runyonesque sampling of unfortunate characters. There is Don Klatke, 46, a mentally ill chain-smoker known as the “can man.” Once a night, he circulates among the trash receptacles bagging up aluminum cans.
There are people tortured by demons of every variety. Robert Torres, 24, is a onetime devil worshiper who bears a razor-etched scar on his arm--"Satan.” Rosie Cervantes, 36, rues the cocaine addiction that separated her from nine young children. Alan Grossman, 37, laughs about his pirate-like appearance--tattoos, needle tracks from heroin, a patch over an eye that was gouged out in a gang fight.
For some, Bell Shelter is merely another stop in a game of leapfrog from one homeless center to another. But for many, the hard-edged program is a chance to start life over. In fact, some experts see the shelter as a model approach to combatting homelessness, one of Los Angeles’ most staggering social problems. The warehouse runs on a system of small rewards and well-applied discipline.
To get in, boarders must be sober. To stay on, they must attend school or job-training classes. At 6:30 each weekday morning, a yellow school bus pulls up at the warehouse to trundle addicts and transients to occupational centers.
At night, boarders take part in drug recovery meetings and chapel services. They are required to write job resumes and monthly book reports. Those who demonstrate commitment--and who look for work--are permitted to stay two years or longer to improve their odds of finding a place in society.
“You can’t have no fun here--no sex, no alcohol, nothing,” complains Steve Jensen, 45, a self-described rebel who went through a divorce and was sleeping in a car before it was repossessed. He showed up at Bell Shelter just as so many do--broke, with an attitude.
“I don’t obey rules,” Jensen declares. “I’ve already crossed the bridge as to whether I’d kill somebody.” But then he shrugs and adds, “Hey, I probably need a structured environment.”
A Loose Camaraderie
To spend time at the shelter is to see hardship and hope, a crossroads strewn with regrets, yet brimming with dreams. People who have slept in parks and dirty alleys find a loose camaraderie. They nurse fragile plans for climbing off the bottom. Romances flourish. Jealousies and petty thefts chip away at the forces of control and discipline.
Boarders spend idle hours playing pool, table tennis and air hockey. They catch movies on a wide-screen TV. They study in the shelter library, or bulk up in the weight room. They get haircuts in a one-chair cubicle known as the Bell Shelter Barber Shoppe and Beauty Salon.
“We want to lift them up, like life is just beginning,” says executive director Daryl Ogden, the only one among 20 paid staff members who is not a former addict or transient. “No place in the United States can offer what we offer. And we don’t charge them a dime.”
Cocaine addict Royal Williams, 35, sits one night sporting a black bandanna and playing video games. He tells of landing a forklift job and putting aside $4,000 toward a car and, soon, an apartment.
“Everybody here is like a family,” Williams says. “People know that if they go to (many) of these other shelters, you might as well still be on the streets. You can’t help but love this place.”
Under a 40-foot ceiling, nine-foot walls slice the vast enclosure into an assortment of rooms, all sharing the same light, the same echoes. The main meeting room has vending machines, game tables and rows of chairs facing the TV. Those seats are now filled, and people spill into the rear of the room, their backs against the steel doors of the loading docks.
It is Monday night, time for “Goolash.”
The name signifies many ingredients, and, in fact, Goolash is not only an orientation for new arrivals but also a chance to discuss rules, programs, problems and gripes. Voices reverberate: The hot water isn’t working. There’s too much noise to sleep.
Ogden says he will check on the water. He pleads for quiet at night.
Caseworker Patrick Mellon comes to the microphone. He is a recovering crack addict who orchestrates employment efforts. He tracks every boarder by computer through training programs designed to make them custodians, security guards, bank tellers, welders, office workers and more. In many cases, Mellon petitions the courts to seal criminal records, aiding a job hunt.
Last year, 165 Bell Shelter boarders enrolled in training, according to Mellon’s figures. Of those, 118 found jobs.
“If you’ve been here 45 days, you’re supposed to be in school or working,” Mellon tells everyone. “Keep my office busy and let’s get you all into homes.”
Next, Ogden asks for volunteers. Six line up, only to learn they must sing--and act out--the verses of “Old MacDonald.” Ogden demonstrates, thrusting his head back and forth, turkey-fashion. “If you’re doing a turkey,” he says, “you’ve got to do a turkey.”
Laughter erupts. David Jones, the first in line, refuses and bolts to the back of the room. Everyone boos. Gwen Boddye, a member of the shelter choir, flaps her arms and does a chicken: “A cluck-cluck here, a cluck-cluck there. . . .” Someone does a dog, a cow. There is a loud chorus: “EE-aayyy-EEE-aaaayyy-OOO.”
Some in the crowd are in hysterics. The lunacy is designed to capture attention. It sets a stage for Mike Mason, the staff’s second-in-command, a tall, dynamic figure who takes the microphone and says: “Let’s get serious a moment.”
The room falls silent. Mason talks about hitting bottom. His own heroin lust once cost him $150 a day.
“I don’t think anybody here has had it worse than I did--living in a cardboard box on Skid Row,” Mason says. “I don’t know of any other program that offers what Bell Shelter does. You’ve got a prime opportunity to change your life.”
The crowd seems almost desperate to hear it. A burst of applause interrupts him, then Mason goes on, admonishing them to keep the shelter clean, to be courteous. “You don’t know who that person is sitting next to you,” he warns. “He might be totally insane. He might be a mass murderer.”
Then the boarders all stand and joins hands for the Lord’s Prayer.
The line for dinner snakes 60 yards, through two doorways. Its slow progress causes Jack Hatch to shake his arms in agitation. “Oh, come on!” he hollers. “Let’s go!”
A sign announces: “Joe’s menu for Monday . . . chili beans, nachos, peaches, corn, tomatoes, ice tea.” One by one, men and women load trays and fill long tables.
Cari Swenson, 32, sits with her fiance, Brian James, 28. A year ago, Swenson was a prostitute in Long Beach. James had been in prison for car theft before they met last fall at 5 one morning. James peeked through a partly open motel door and saw Swenson alone with a crack pipe. They talked.
“ ‘Cari, my mission is to save your life,’ ” Swenson recalls him saying. “He wants to get me off the streets because I’m going to end up dying out there.”
Now they are here--their first day. Swenson talks of getting a home, starting a family. But her eyes are wide, as if every clattering echo scares her. She took solace from Mason’s speech. “We are somebody. We can change,” she says. “And we need to hear that.”
Choir rehearsal fills the dining hall after dinner. A dozen bodies sway and clap. “Hold me, Jesus! Hold me, Jesus! I need you to hold my hand.”
Lights-out is a few hours away. In the main room, TVs blare. Men play pool. Out on the loading docks, dozens of people smoke and chat. A boisterous group plays dominoes.
Behind a casual atmosphere lies a tough set of rules. Forbidden are gambling, profanity, drinking or fighting. If fisticuffs break out, combatants are put on the streets, no matter who starts it. Smokers must dispose of their butts properly or face losing the privilege.
Provocative dress is taboo. So is physical contact, even between husband and wife. Not only do men and women sleep in separate quarters, but staff members--several live here--are forever vigilant in common areas.
“If a man and his wife are caressing,” Mason says, “I’ll talk to them and say, ‘There’s a man in here, or a woman, who’s watching that and getting aroused. Who knows what will happen from there?’ ”
‘She Causes Me Problems Daily’
Men outnumber women by about seven to one. Much attention therefore falls to young women such as Irma Camacho, 23, a cocaine user who arrived only weeks ago. With her dark eyes, high cheeks and playful smile, Camacho is rarely alone.
One counselor describes her as helpful, sweet, naive. But Mellon, the caseworker, says he had to have her change clothes four times in a single day to cover exposed skin.
“She causes me problems daily--being young, sexy and knowing it,” Mellon says. “The only thing that keeps her (safe) in here is people like me.”
Camacho sits now in the main room, showing off pictures of her infant son, Jesse, who is with her mother. Jesse’s father is in Mexico; Camacho says she threw him out.
Living with her three brothers, all gang members, Camacho feared for the baby’s safety, she says. Now she wants to get off drugs and learn a trade.
A volunteer stops by to give her a pair of socks. Camacho is delighted; earlier, she got new shoes and a pretty pink sweater. She unfolds the socks. They appear long.
“That’s OK,” she says, giggling. “I like them long.”
Bedtime is announced via loudspeaker. Those working or in job training retire to semiprivate cubicles; some sleep only four to a room. But an overwhelming majority are relegated to the cavernous men’s sleeping hall.
Narrow military cots fill more than half the space. At the far end, slightly elevated, are wider, padded beds, reserved for those with exemplary behavior. Staff members call the area Beverly Hills.
“It’s more like South-Central,” one addict quips.
The lights go out at 11. Men drift in. Nights are haunted by memories. Jerry DeHaan, 37, is just one of those who lie awake, thinking. DeHaan was once a rock singer--even got a video on MTV, he says. And he still has that look: the blond hair halfway down his back, the 14-carat guitar pendant, which he hasn’t removed in 10 years.
“I had the women, I had the drugs--I had it all,” DeHaan says. “Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll--that’s what the problem was about.” It has been reduced to slang shorthand: “SDR,” the irresistible trio that cost him marriage, home and family.
DeHaan had a day job, too, in aerospace, but was laid off. At the end of the slide he pawned all his guitars and amplifiers. He has not seen his son or daughter in three years.
“I miss my son, man.” DeHaan’s eyes tear up. “It hurts, it really does.”
‘I Don’t Have No Regrets’
Hard-luck stories fill every cot. Voices penetrate the darkness. A dishwasher booms and swishes. Some men snore, but for many, sleep comes hard.
Shortly before 3 a.m., a night worker cleans the kitchen and prepares for breakfast--dry cereal, oatmeal, beans.
A peacefulness settles in.
At 4, Patricia Clayton sits studying the Scriptures. She is 51, a former cocaine addict and the mother of eight grown children. Until 5:30, when she must awaken the women, Clayton is pursuing her attempt to read the Bible in a year--a bit every night.
Her husband, Shallie Clayton, 52, also works graveyard, supervising the kitchen and standing by for emergencies. For 37 years, on and off, he used heroin.
“I guess I spent about enough to buy a Rolls-Royce,” Clayton says, estimating that he has seen 15 or 20 friends die of overdoses. But Clayton cleaned up five years ago. He has a graying mustache and diamond earring and seems content here in the quiet of the shelter kitchen.
“Maybe this was what was supposed to happen to me in my life,” he says. “I don’t have no regrets.”
Dawn comes not with reveille, but with blaring announcements: “Let’s get up, gentlemen. It’s time to wake up.”
Showers fill. People line up at sinks and mirrors.
Breakfast ends at 6:45, and by 8 the “Level 1" boarders--those not yet in study programs--must leave the shelter for the day unless they have prior permission to stay.
Cari Swenson and Brian James are distressed to learn of the rule. Unsure where to go, they stare at the commotion and drift away. Two women stumble through the office area, mumbling about sleep deprivation.
By 9, when Hatch gets up, much of the place has cleared out. Hatch is effusive. “It’s good to be alive,” he declares to one addict. He lays out clean mats in the showers and moves to a bank of dryers to fold towels.
A resident for three years, Hatch is next to royalty. During last year’s promotion, staff members marched holding pool cues and played the national anthem. Hatch’s background is sketchy--he doesn’t much discuss it--but Mason recalls that he once went home to family, then showed up at the shelter again, crying.
Hatch concedes he is happier here. “You get to do things,” he says gruffly. “When these darn dryers go out, I hit the switch--that breaker switch--and everything goes back on.”
Far across the warehouse other chores are being handled by the executive staff. Mellon, a former electronics engineer, calculates the electrical demands of appliances that will fill a new kitchen. He must steal the time from a huge caseload of problems.
Though proud that 25 boarders are working full time and saving money, Mellon often talks with exasperation. Addicts solicit him for money or bus tokens. He tells horror stories. One boarder--a volunteer in the kitchen--was here before and learned carpentry, only to move in with a drug-abusing woman. Instead of saving for a truck, he bought a color TV.
“The problem is, when you move back (on the street),” Mellon says, “there’s no place to plug it in.”
Not every trainee goes away happy. Ron Coleman, 49, moved in a year ago and enrolled in a computer program. Later, he alleged--among many charges--that the program offered inadequate instruction. Administrators extended his course hours, but Coleman left this spring still jobless.
Don McWilliams, 32, who also left jobless after taking the same computer course, says boarders are pressured into filling open training spots and threatened with eviction.
“They decide when you wake up, when you go to bed, what your behavior will be,” McWilliams says. "(They say) you’re going to be thrown out for this, going to be thrown out for that. For you to put everything you have in a green plastic bag and walk out onto that street, with no idea where you’re going to go, is a rough situation. And I’ve seen it happen many a time.”
Shelter managers deny the accusations. Ogden, the executive director, calls Coleman a troublemaker and adds: “When you’re dealing with homeless people, you’re dealing with one end of the spectrum to the other. There’s a reason many of them are homeless--they’re dysfunctional.”
The walls of Ogden’s tiny office feature a portrait of Christ, a chalkboard filled with budget figures and a “needs list” running 13 items, including a freezer, washing machines and a VCR.
At 48, Ogden was a high-paid corporate manager with a month’s vacation every year. He quit to find meaning and hired on here three years ago, when the shelter was $600,000 in debt and about to fold. Ogden dispensed with free commuter buses, bolstered fund raising and now operates in the black on a $500,000 budget of county, federal and private funds.
Cutting corners is a way of life. A former addict, John Ivey, makes plumbing repairs and administers random drug tests to boarders and staff. Most of the furniture is federal surplus. Carpenter apprentices and union labor built the showers and sleeping cubicles for free.
The new kitchen is a steel cargo container with one end lopped off and windows cut with blowtorches. The donated hunk of metal juts from the west wall. Recently, the shelter also acquired 10 mobile homes. Soon they will provide temporary housing just beyond the loading docks, enabling about 30 former transients to save money a few extra months.
The whole place is the brainchild of federal appeals court Judge Harry Pregerson, who was distressed when an unusually cold winter began causing hypothermia deaths among transients.
Pregerson helped the Salvation Army arrange to rent the warehouse for $1 a year. When the shelter opened in January, 1988, with only a dozen cots and no showers, there was public alarm over the concept.
“I was very, very fearful that it would become . . . a metaphor for warehousing the homeless, and it was going to be a terrible place,” says Gene Boutilier, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, a new joint powers agency formed by the city and county to coordinate homeless services.
“I think it’s the best shelter program in the entire county,” says Godwin Nwufo, a senior analyst for the county’s Community Services Department. “It’s very comprehensive. I think they’re really training people to become self-sufficient.”
Encouraged by its success, the Salvation Army plans to open a new domed structure in Santa Monica on Thursday to house 100 men and women a night, said agency spokesman Russell Prince. “It’s modeled very much,” he says, “on the Bell Shelter.”
And so, meanwhile, the Bell Shelter tumbles on, a kaleidoscope of dreams and failures, days and nights, and scenes that unfold far from the world that most people know.
In the main room at night, Mason convenes the entire throng and announces that there is a thief among them--a wallet is missing. A search begins, locker by locker, bed by bed, until at last it is found out on the docks, minus $80 in cash.
At a crowded drug recovery meeting, Alan Grossman recalls the day he climbed atop a freeway overpass, ready to leap into traffic and end it all. The shelter saved his life, he says.
Late one night before a blank TV, Sergio Willis, 24, talks of his two-year odyssey, a gay youth fleeing a “homophobic” small town to try a career in creative arts. He shows off a comic strip--"Detector Pig"--that he has drawn for years. The character wears a protective suit to make him strong. “He’s getting more violent,” Willis says.
People come and go. Brian James talks of lining up construction work; a few days later, he and Cari Swenson are gone. Jerry DeHaan sits outside in the darkness of the docks and vows that someday--someday--he’ll be playing the Forum. Not far away, Irma Camacho listens while Robert Torres talks of communing with Satan to learn evil. Torres says he once had a dream that if he left Satan he would become homeless--and that’s how he came to be here.
And on another morning, Jack Hatch tends to the laundry then goes to get a pill for his blood pressure. He rummages for a drinking cup. He stops, excited, whispering about the news: In only a few days Hatch will be promoted again.
“I’m going to be Capt. Jack,” he says, his eyes wide. “It has a beautiful ring to it, doesn’t it?”