LONG BEACH — As the van pulled into Lincoln Park, a visible surge of excitement coursed through the ragtag crowd on the grass. What had seemed like lethargy suddenly became movement. Heads popped out of tattered sleeping bags like gophers out of holes. A shirtless young man sprinted 30 yards from where he was sitting, straight to the curb. And in a short time, the crowd had formed into a long scraggly line along the sidewalk beside the van.
Forty minutes later when the van pulled away, 75 of them had been given sack lunches. A few had new pairs of shoes, and several others sported new coats.
"It keeps you from starving," said Frank Druyor, 30, rummaging through the brown paper bag containing a hot dog on sourdough bread, baked beans and a carton of milk. An unemployed dishwasher, Druyor said he has been living in his car for two months. But he makes it a point to come to the park each day about noon because that's when the van arrives. And lunches from the van, he said, are one thing he can depend on.
"I think this is one of the greatest things that's ever happened in this town," said Daniel Duritsch, 39, as he slipped his tired-looking feet into a nearly new pair of shiny brown shoes, size 9 1/2. "When people get hungry they'll do things they wouldn't ordinarily do. Once you get down, it's hard to get back up."
So ended the first stop on a recent sojourn of one of the county's only mobile soup kitchens. The idea is simple: Since the homeless often won't come in for services, why not take the services to the homeless? And though the project has raised the hackles of some local merchants and the eyebrows of at least one city councilman, its organizers say they are breaking new ground in dealing with what is fast becoming an old problem.
While the City Council has just joined the county in offering shelter to the homeless during cold weather emergencies, organizers say that their new van will provide stopgap aid on a daily basis. And they envision a countywide fleet complete with portable computers to help get the homeless off the streets by providing them with an on-the-spot link to existing government services.
"Our first line of defense is to keep people alive," said John Siegel, an associate professor at California State University, Long Beach and director of community support services for the Mental Health Assn. in Los Angeles County, the private nonprofit agency that is sponsoring the van.
The inspiration for the project, Siegel said, came two years ago when he was driving through downtown Los Angeles and saw a man sitting on a park bench looking disheveled and hungry. "There was very little I could do for him at that moment," the educator recalled. But the image remained with Siegel.
The result is the Mobile Homeless Assistance project, which began operating three weeks ago and is supported by a six-month state grant administered by the county Department of Mental Health Services. Based at a church in downtown Long Beach and equipped with a cellular telephone and a small kitchen, the van makes its rounds six days a week distributing donated food, blankets and clothing, and whenever necessary contacting local agencies by telephone to link the homeless with services or shelter.
The 1985 GMC step van was bought and equipped for $37,000. It costs $200 a day to operate, project administrators say, which includes the salaries of a team of CSULB students who function as its staff. Siegel says he hopes to spend the remainder of the $262,000 grant on a downtown homeless drop-in center, for which his group is still seeking a site.
But the project wants to provide more than a Band-Aid approach to homelessness. Its long-range goal is to identify and provide health and social services for those homeless that organizers believe are mentally ill.
To accomplish this they plan to conduct field interviews with homeless people, and, using portable computers, provide services on the street that eventually may include taking applications for Social Security and other benefits. In the process, they also expect to refine their statistics, determining how many homeless people there are.
"We want to find out why these people are here and how they got here," said Celine Bonillo, the project's assistant director. In order to do that, she said, they must first gain the trust of the street people by providing basic necessities.
Other Cities Contacted
Although the van has operated primarily in Long Beach, Siegel says he is negotiating with city officials in Whittier, Lakewood, Norwalk, Cerritos and Wilmington to serve the homeless in those communities. And eventually, he says, he would like to see the project expanded countywide.
Not everyone, however, is crazy about the job the van is doing.