Sheltered lives

Sheltered lives

Homeless centers can’t seem to provide services fast enough for Pasadena’s growing homeless population

By André Coleman , Grace Persico , Joe Piasecki , Nyrie Chaparian 02/25/2009

Pushing past the dozens of homeless lined up to wait along the narrow entryway to the Friends in Deed pantry and Bad Weather Shelter at Pasadena Covenant Church on North Lake Avenue felt a little like running a gauntlet. Were we new volunteers? Cutting ahead of them in line? The hungry, disheveled, somewhat ill-tempered and malodorous crowd wanted to know, but we remained focused on pushing our way to the door.

Inside, shelter workers fold blankets and set up cots for the dozens of those with mental illness, drug and alcohol dependence or just hard-luck stories who, when 8 p.m. comes, will devour their daily meal and crash out until morning. Last Thursday, Feb. 19, there were 102. On Feb. 18, 170. On cold and rainy Feb. 17, 195 battered souls packed the austere gymnasium sleeping area. On any given day, everyone agrees, there are dozens more than at this time last year.

Over in a separate room, homeless families with small children begin to settle in for the night. Among them is 25-year-old Renee, who hasn’t had much of anything to call home since county social workers took her from her mother when she was 9 years old. They sent her and her handicapped sister, she says, to her aunt, who beat them. So, at 13, Renee ran away back to her mother’s house, then moved in with a boyfriend four years later. Though he soon went to prison, she stayed on with his mother, but moved out after becoming pregnant by another man. For more than two years, the couple has been in and out of hotels and shelters with their bubbly son, Xavier.

The story of Renee’s family matches those of many homeless families who find their way to the shelter, said Pat O’Reilly, executive director of the Ecumenical Council of Pasadena Area Churches, which operates Friends in Deed. She usually sees three kinds of families: “The ones who have disorganized lives, in and out of jobs, can’t manage their money, just kind of live in crisis … another third of the families have lost their housing or their jobs, or their rent had gone up … and the others are often battered women with children who had used up other resources, gone through the gamut and they still haven’t gotten on their feet.”

Mark, his wife Beverly and their two young sons, 4 and 6, seem to fit into the first group. A musician and instrument maker by trade, he stopped working last year and the family lost its apartment while tending to Beverly’s sick mother out of state, and since that time they’ve bounced between cheap extended-stay motels and shelters around Southern California.

“It’s horrible. It’s scary. We felt it was below us,” said Mark of his shelter experiences, though this is the first time he’s been to Friends in Deed, where that night he’d be staying with Renee’s family on cots in a small room next to the gymnasium. “Our perception of homeless people was pretty much like other people’s — it would never happen to us. But we’ve met families who had had nice homes and decent cars, dressing nice and clean, so we didn’t feel so bad. We also met a lot of professional services users, who like to live like that. We stayed at one shelter and had to go again nine months later, and the same people were still there. That scared us.”

The good news is that next week Mark and his family will be moving into a state-sponsored transitional living apartment in Pomona, he says. But on Feb. 28, the Bad Weather Shelter, funded in large part by the city, is set to close for the season, except for any night when temperatures are expected to fall below 40 degrees or there is a 40 percent or greater chance of rain — and even then, only through March 15.

Where will all these people go?

Said Kitty Galt, a homeless outreach specialist with Pacific Clinics’ Passageways program, “They go back to where they came from: the streets.”

Destination: Pasadena
With many overcrowded shelters in Los Angeles already turning people away, Pasadena has become a destination city for the homeless — in part due to the proximity of the Bad Weather Shelter to the Lake Avenue Metro Gold Line station just a few blocks south, according to the Pasadena Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Psychiatric Evaluation, or HOPE, team.

Over the years, HOPE officers Victor Cass and Bill Shipman have heard time and again from many homeless people that Los Angeles police officers had given them train fare and told them to seek out social services in Pasadena. While those suspicions remain unconfirmed, it’s crystal clear that the homeless are coming here in droves.

“This city, in a sense, is a very homeless-friendly city,” said Cass, a team member for two years. “For the most part, the homeless who were on Skid Row and were pushed out by the LAPD get on the Gold Line and head to Pasadena. We make contact with them, see if they want services and direct them to the cold-weather shelter. Right now we are seeing people we have not seen before. The economy is definitely impacting the homeless population. Some of them say they had a place to stay or a job just a few weeks ago.”

Led by Shipman, often referred to as “the homeless cop” after a decade of relationship-building with the homeless on the streets and in parks — the HOPE team often just checks to see if they’re well, but also makes sure those with mental illnesses are not a danger to themselves or others.

Under California’s Welfare and Institutions Code 5150, the HOPE team can place a 72-hour involuntary hold on homeless or mentally unstable people whom they deem to be a danger to themselves or others. During confinement, a mental health professional examines the person to determine whether they need more help. The team is also the first responder on calls in which mental health issues or homeless people may be involved.

It’s not a glamorous beat.

“Every year people die on the street. It is one of the things we are trying to prevent, but it’s becoming harder for us to keep track of the numbers. Sometimes we just don’t hear about it,” said Shipman, who isn’t sure how many homeless died on the streets of Pasadena last year but counted 19 in 2005.

The HOPE team conducts an annual homeless census to determine the number of indigent people on the streets of Pasadena on any given night, the latest occurring on Jan. 28, when the Bad Weather Shelter was already seeing larger numbers at its doorstep.

In 2005, on an average night, 1,217 people were sleeping on the streets in Pasadena. Over the next two years the number decreased to 969, only to increase slightly in 2008 to 983. This year’s figure won’t be released until March but, already, “I am expecting an increase in the number of homeless people in Pasadena,” said Joe Colletti, chief executive author of the Institute for Urban Initiatives, who is compiling the data.

Worse than Katrina
One of the people the HOPE team routinely checks on is a 53-year-old man who calls himself James. He spends much of his days on the sidewalk in front of the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Old Pasadena in the hopes that passersby will drop a few coins into the dirty plastic cup at his feet so he can buy something to eat.

I been on the streets on-and-off for the past 19 years,” said James, who decided after being turned away in December from a downtown LA shelter that he was better off trying to find a dry place on the streets in Pasadena. “It ain’t never been this bad.”
Tanya Tull, head of the nonprofit Beyond Shelter agency in downtown LA, agrees.

“It is a disaster,” said Tull, who has worked with the homeless for 30 years. “We are seeing an increase in new homeless families, due to job loss and the foreclosure of rental units. I would like people to see this as a disaster of [Hurricane] Katrina proportions. It is not a natural disaster but a man-made one, which is worse. Our support is dying, but the needs have increased. We are turning more people away than ever before. When it hits more of the middle class, we might see something change.”

Galt adds that Pasadena is starting to see newly homeless people popping up among the day-laborer community, based out of the Pasadena Job Center across the street from the Bad Weather Shelter.

“We are now seeing folks show up at the shelters who maybe got by doing gardening and day laborer stuff as a second job, but now the day laborer jobs are going away,” said Galt. “We now have people who go out and pound the pavement all day and look for a job and then come back to the shelter.”

Pasadena officials have been working on changing things since 2004, when the city became the first in Southern California to develop a 10-year plan to end homelessness.

The plan is described as a living document, which means it is updated annually by a working group that meets to identify strategies for reducing homelessness, including support for existing services to individuals and families. The plan earmarks city funding for Sources, a job training program run by Union Station, a homeless services center on Arroyo Parkway.

“When the plan was developed, one of the primary focuses from HUD [the US Department of Housing and Urban Development] and the working group was on chronic homelessness — the hardest to serve and most disabled of the homeless population,” said Anne Lansing, a project planner in the city’s Housing Department.

Last year, 40 percent of Pasadena’s nearly 1,000 homeless were described as chronically homeless, meaning they had lived on the streets for years and have more or less lost the ambition or even the desire to get off the streets.

“The focus was on preventing homelessness through the [city’s] Homeless Prevention Program, moving persons as quickly as possible from the street through additional street outreach and support for existing high-performing programs, and keeping those who had been homeless from becoming homeless again through housing with supportive services and case management,” she said.

No easy answers
Marcus, 22, who joined the growing population of young people living on the streets after leaving the foster care system when he turned 18, believes the answer is a simple one.

“If they want to help us, they should start giving some of the city work to us,” he said while hanging out in front of Jake’s Billiards in Old Town. “You have a lot of people on the streets in Pasadena and there is a lot of trash, and they get people to come up from Compton to clean it up. Why not hand us a dustpan and let us sweep shit up and break us off some money so we can take care of ourselves. A lot of us would do that. I go to the shelter sometimes when it’s cold, but it’s not always open and then I have to find someplace.”

According to the United Way, 1,497 of the 8,985 homeless people in the San Gabriel Valley in 2007 were children and young adults like Marcus who essentially have nowhere to go when the Bad Weather Shelter closes up for the season.
But making the Bad Weather Shelter a year-round scene may not be a good answer.

“Philosophically, it would be nice to have something like this year-round,” Galt told the Weekly. “But, if this were always here, people would never have to make the decision to move on” into more comprehensive programs, such as those offered by Union Station. “This is just to get people in a bed, to keep them safe.”

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