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Homeless Fight the Odds to Find Jobs

December 07, 1986|KENNETH J. FANUCCHI

John R. Caldwell, 25, stops short of saying that he is an alcoholic.

"Nobody really likes to admit it, do they?" Caldwell said. "But yes, I have had trouble with alcohol.

Caldwell had just finished checking into the Hollywood Homeless Shelter, hoping to get his life together.

Born and raised in Salt Lake City, with two years of college, Caldwell has traversed the country seeking a niche, without success.

A tile worker by trade, he has found temporary work at the La Brea Tar Pits. "This place gives me some hope," Caldwell said. "There was nothing for me in Salt Lake City or any of the other places I've been. I'm giving it another shot."

The odds of Caldwell and the 50 other people at the shelter getting permanent jobs are not good. Only 10 of the more than 100 people who have stayed there in the past two months have found jobs that will support them. The shelter will house people for only 21 days before they must move on or find other forms of aid.

"These are people with some rather severe personal catastrophes in their lives," said Charles N. Cooper, social worker for the facility. "For one reason or another, they have lost all their resources.

"I find them pretty responsive, indeed even eager to find a productive spot in society. And maybe I'm too optimistic, but I believe that as we increase our resources, most of them will be able to accomplish that goal."

Cooper, who began helping others by working with youth gangs in Chicago in 1958, said the average age of people in the shelter is 31, with an average education level of slightly more than 12 years.

Most have been out of work for a short time: 25% for less than a week, 25% for less than a month and 25% for one to three months. "So there is hope, if we can get them back to work quickly," he said.

Those who are unemployable because their problems are too severe are directed to various treatment facilities for alcoholism, drug use or mental illness. "Between 40% and 50% of the people who come here have had a special problem, be it with alcohol, other drugs or mental illness," Cooper said. "We get them cleaned up and direct them into treatment centers when openings become available."

Larry Nickerson, 23, of Compton said he came to the facility because "there was no place else for me to go."

"My marriage broke up, I lost my job (as a truck driver) and I was walking the streets for two days before I was directed here," he said.

Nickerson has been working as a bouncer while living at the shelter--not exactly the kind of job he had in mind. He was scheduled to leave the facility soon and faces an uncertain future.

"Where do I go?" he said. "That's a good question. This is the first time I've ever been in this condition. Believe me, it's tough."

Jose Reza, 45, also was leaving the shelter. With experience as an upholsterer and a meat cutter, he had been unable to get a job in either field. "I've been homeless since 1979," he said.

"Maybe I will share a room somewhere with a friend," he said. "I would like to get a job as a shipping clerk."

Edward Eisenstadt, director of alcoholism and residential services for Volunteers of America, which operates the center, readily conceded that not everyone coming to the shelter is going to transform his life.

"We are willing to take a chance," he said. "I have been in this business long enough to know that there is no magical formula. Sometimes, the guy with all the apparent skills does not make it; those with no apparent skills do. So, you keep working at it."

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