Several times a day a white station wagon pulls up in front of an office on Lennox Avenue in Van Nuys to drop off a couple of drunks who wearily shuffle into the building.
Inside, the men flop onto vinyl-covered couches and plastic molded chairs. They read, play cards or simply stare out the window. What they say they come here for are luxuries that are hard to come by elsewhere--a shower, a shave and a sandwich.
What began three years ago as a small storefront operation on Van Nuys Boulevard to offer daytime shelter and a cup of coffee for public inebriates has grown into a community detoxification center serving about 850 people a month.
On Thursday the county- and city-funded center, called People in Progress, formally opened a new and bigger facility at 6841 Lennox Ave. It is the only such center in the San Fernando Valley that caters specifically to the needs of drunks.
Loitering drunks have long plagued the Van Nuys Boulevard business district and have hampered revitalization.
People in Progress also operates a detoxification center and provides services for alcoholics in the Skid Row area of downtown Los Angeles. In 1982, at the urging of the Van Nuys Chamber of Commerce, it opened a branch on Van Nuys Boulevard.
"You can see that the center has had an impact along the boulevard," Los Angeles police Capt. Arthur Sjoquist said. "It relieved some of the pressure on the streets."
Problem With Jail
The Van Nuys police station has the only jail in the Valley equipped to handle drunks. That aggravates the problem, Sjoquist said.
"Unless a drunk is accused of a crime, we can only hold them in jail for a couple of hours," he said. "Then we have to let them go. And they go right out the door and back on the streets."
The Van Nuys center offers at least a daytime alternative for alcoholics, most of whom are homeless, unemployed men, said Carol Nottley, executive director of People in Progress. The center has showers, a small kitchen, counseling and referral services and a six-bed detoxification area.
Also, the station wagon, driven by two recovering alcoholics, travels around the area daily, picking up about 300 drunks a month from back doorways, parks and alleys.
Center's Hours Limited
The center's biggest drawback, officials said, is that it is open from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. on weekdays. Only those participating in the detoxification program are permitted to stay in the center after it closes.
"It's back on the street for me after 5 p.m." said Jim Helgren, 45, who officials say is a regular at the center. "This place--it's nice, it breaks the boredom, it cleans you up. I can come here and shower and shave and get something to eat."
With the opening of the larger facility, Nottley said, the next goal for the center is to operate around the clock.