Homeless Get Second Chance at Autonomy : Social services: A transitional housing complex dedicated in Westminster is the culmination of a public-private nonprofit partnership.

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New York native Milagros Santiago never thought that her pursuit of the California Dream would lead her to a homeless shelter.

But there she was early this month, with her two boys, ages 16 months and 6 years, seeking a temporary place to stay after moving out of a Costa Mesa apartment, where she could no longer afford the $750 rent.

"I couldn't believe I was in a homeless shelter," said Santiago, 29, who moved to Orange County in 1988 to escape the violence of her Brooklyn neighborhood. "I cried all the time. I was so depressed."

But things have turned around. Santiago and her children, along with seven other families, have moved into a two-building apartment complex on Locust Street that was bought and renovated with money from the city's Redevelopment Agency and some assistance from community volunteers and HomeAid, a nonprofit group supported by Orange County's Building Industry Assn.

Managed by the Westminster-based Shelter for the Homeless, a nonprofit group, the so-called transitional housing program also provides job training and nutrition and parenting classes, and teaches such basic skills as how to budget and dress for a job interview.

"This is a public-private nonprofit partnership," Mayor Charles V. Smith said during a dedication ceremony Wednesday at the apartment complex.

"This not only helps the homeless but upgrades the neighborhood," Smith said. "We get double benefit here."

Last year, the Westminster City Council agreed to buy three run-down apartment buildings for about $300,000 each and convert them to temporary housing for homeless families.

With the help of community and HomeAid volunteers, eight units of two buildings were renovated. The extensive repairs included installing new kitchens and bathrooms, new landscaping, fencing and paint.

Work on the remaining building will begin soon, according to Jim Miller, executive director of Shelter for the Homeless.

"It's a blessing that the city has supported us," said Miller, whose organization provided temporary shelter to about 3,600 homeless men, women and children in 1993.

Some cities, he said, are reluctant to help. Faced with an increasing homeless population, a few cities have enacted tough ordinances against transients, including anti-camping laws.

But Westminster officials have used affordable-housing money to benefit the homeless, including $20,000 allocated two months ago to house 20 people evicted by the California Department of Transportation from an encampment near the San Diego Freeway. Shelter for the Homeless used that money to rent two places in Huntington Beach and Westminster for those people.

"This is what government is all about," said Councilman Frank Fry, who attended Wednesday's ceremony. "You put your muscle into something that could make a difference."

Jamie Sanchez, a program coordinator for Shelter for the Homeless, said that 20 people, including children, live in the two-bedroom apartments. Residents pay $360 a month.

Some have roommates, like Santiago, who shares an apartment with another single mother of two children. Each pays $180 a month, and they pay for utilities, Sanchez said.

Four families are in so-called emergency situations, Sanchez said, and they do not pay rent or utility bills. But they must find permanent housing within six months. Santiago and others like her in transitional housing programs may stay up to a year.

But Sanchez said his group keeps a close watch on the residents' finances. Residents must provide a copy of their paychecks before cashing them and disclose their savings.

"We want them to be able to take care of themselves after a year," Sanchez said. "They are here because they had some problems. They need the discipline, and they say they actually like it."

Santiago said that her life is now on the mend.

She wants to go back to school and pursue a degree in psychology. She now works part time as a physical therapist in a home for mentally disabled people.

"I want to be independent," she said, noting the irony of learning independence at a shelter for the homeless.

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