Pamela Lahey wears her red T-shirt and khaki pants with all the pride of a young doctor in surgical scrubs or a rookie cop in starched blues. She's working now as a clerk at the Target store on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena for $8 an hour. To her, it feels like a million bucks.
Six months ago, Lahey, 43, was wearing prison garb and wondering what life held in store. The last 16 years had been a blur of alcoholism, methamphetamine use, estrangement from her family and, if all that weren't enough, a felony conviction for living in a Baldwin Park trailer without the owner's consent.
When she got out of jail in San Bernardino County at the end of May, she gathered up her 3-year-old daughter, Belinda Brant, and headed straight for a place she'd heard about in custody -- Passageways, a center for the homeless run by Pasadena's Union Station Foundation.
Started as a church soup kitchen in a storefront on Union Street in 1973, Union Station has become the San Gabriel Valley's largest homeless agency, providing the services required to turn bereft, dispossessed people such as Lahey into stable wage-earners with their own place to live.
The numbers tell the story of an embracing, entrepreneurial nonprofit with a $3.8-million operating budget: More than 155,000 meals and 31,000 nights of shelter and transitional housing were provided in the last fiscal year, when 56 families from its Family Center on East Orange Grove Avenue graduated to stable housing.
Private donations make up 80% of Union Station's funding. The Times Holiday Fund awarded $25,000 to Union Station this year.
The nonprofit also is constructing a 20-bed wing for single women at its 36-bed men's shelter on South Raymond Avenue.
But, from Lahey's perspective, the numbers tell only part of the story. Three days after she was released from jail May 28, Lahey and her daughter were living in the 50-bed Family Center.
"We'll help anybody who comes to our door," said Marvin M. Gross, Union Station's executive director.
A week after Lahey moved in, she was enrolled in Choices, a nearby outpatient drug and alcohol counseling program for mothers. A little while later, her caseworker helped place her in an individual counseling program provided by the Westminster Presbyterian Church.
Then, in September, she completed Sources, an intensive, two-week job-training program that Union Station created after staff members realized that food and shelter alone weren't enough to combat chronic homelessness.
Lahey didn't have to pay for any of it, but it wasn't free. Like all residents, she has been required to put 70% of her government welfare benefits in the bank so that she will be able to put down a first and last month's rent deposit on her own apartment when it comes time to leave. And there is zero tolerance for drugs or alcohol.
"We have this recipe for them to follow that they can be successful with. All they have to do is make the effort," said Joyce Miles-Wilson, the Family Center's director.
Lahey sums up what the shelter, the meals, the counseling and now, the red T-shirt and khaki slacks, have given her: hope. "I would say that's the most important thing," she said. "It's been quite an experience for me. I don't know where I would have been without the Family Center."
In addition to her first job in 16 years, Lahey has begun to rebuild her relationships with her mother and three older daughters, ages 16, 14 and 12, in neighboring Altadena, where she grew up. Difficult challenges undoubtedly remain. Her job at Target lasts only through the holidays. And then will come the challenge of finding permanent housing, the one obstacle Union Station has not been completely successful in surmounting, given the skyrocketing real estate prices and rents across Southern California in the last decade.
"That's a continuing theme," Gross said. "We saw it begin in the last 10 years -- and it's pretty much exploded in front of us."
To escape the housing squeeze in Pasadena, those leaving the Family Center find themselves looking in such places as Lancaster, Pacoima and Palmdale -- even as far away as Las Vegas.
Three decades ago, when Union Station was a soup kitchen and trendy Old Town was still a fading old town, the homeless were mostly aged, single men addicted to drugs and alcohol.
A city survey last year found that women now account for more than a third of homeless adults in Pasadena, where there are more than 1,200 homeless people on any given day, a 42% increase from 2003.
Lahey is proof that the trend need not be permanent.
"It was just progressive steps in the right direction," she said, reflecting on the services that Union Station has provided. "And I get more and more confident that I'm starting a new life -- and I know it can be done. It's a little late, but I know I've got a lot to look forward to."
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