LONG BEACH — With heavy rains and hail falling Tuesday night, county and city officials kicked off a new emergency shelter program that they said placed 55 homeless people, including six children, in warm hotel and motel rooms.
The county program, which the City Council voted to join one week ago, offers temporary shelter to the homeless on nights when the temperature dips to 40 degrees or below.
The program was created Jan. 22 by the county Board of Supervisors in response to the weather-related deaths of four homeless people in January. It is supposed to benefit four cities that the supervisors said have large numbers of homeless.
Of the four cities--Los Angeles, Long Beach, Santa Monica and West Hollywood--only Long Beach has agreed to participate in the program, said Carole Matsui, spokesman for the county Department of Public Social Services.
The department, along with the county Department of Mental Health Services, sent six employees to the Catholic Charities office on 123 E. 14th St. in Long Beach on Tuesday night to hand out hotel and motel vouchers.
By 4:30 p.m., homeless people who had heard of the program by word-of-mouth began lining up outside the Catholic Charities office, said Tony Durante, the agency's supervisor of emergency services. County employees began distributing the vouchers at 6:10 p.m. and by 9 p.m. had handed them out to 55 people.
County and city workers stayed until 10 p.m., but no one else showed up to benefit from the unpublicized program, officials said.
Tuesday night, Long Beach police patrolled the streets looking for homeless people. Eight were referred to the Catholic Charities office, said Richard Harris, the city's coordinator of services for the homeless.
At Catholic Charities, the homeless were invited into a waiting room Tuesday night and served vegetable beef soup and bologna and salami sandwiches made by volunteers, Durante said.
"The clients (homeless people) were extremely cooperative even though a number of them waited for hours," Durante said, adding that they were "very polite to each other" in the crowded waiting room.
Meanwhile, on the same night in North Long Beach, the City Council debated at length whether the city should augment the county voucher program by operating its own emergency shelters during cold weather.
The council voted 7 to 2 to set up an emergency shelter for the homeless on the fifth floor of the Police Department. The city's emergency service will be available only to people who have received hotel and motel vouchers from county officials but were not allowed to stay in the hotel and motels, said Councilman Evan Anderson Braude, who proposed the emergency ordinance.
Braude said he wanted to create a "safety net" for those who may be rejected because of their unsavory appearance and thus "fall through the cracks" of the county program.
County officials, however, said they had verified that all 55 people who were issued vouchers Tuesday spent the night at five hotels and motels in Long Beach, San Pedro and Wilmington.
"We called all the hotels and motels and confirmed every single name" Wednesday morning, said Michelle Callahan, director of the county Public Social Service's Long Beach office.
Hotel owners said the first night of the new voucher system went smoothly.
"They didn't give us any problems," said C. H. Patel, owner of the Greenleaf Hotel in Long Beach where 10 homeless people spent the night. The hotel began accepting county vouchers as part of other social service programs about five years ago.
Generally, he said, about one-third of the hotel's 45 rooms are occupied by people on vouchers. Although there have been occassional problems, including a fight in which Patel got a black eye, he said the system has worked for the most part.
Cesar Lopez, owner of Wilmington's Don Hotel, which accepted 22 homeless people Tuesday night, said the 70 vouchered guests he accommodates on an average week significantly improve the establishment's vacancy rate. "Some are good, some are bad," he said. "It takes lots of patience to know how to (deal with) these people."
Other area hotels accepting vouchered guests include the La Salle in San Pedro and the Carleton and La Posada in Long Beach.
Callahan said county officials have an "excellent relationship" with hotel and motel owners who participate in the county's assistance programs, and people with county vouchers are never rejected by hotel and motel employees.
Bus Passes Issued
"We don't have any problem ever with that," Callahan said. She said that when the voucher is issued to a homeless person, a county official calls the hotel or motel and informs employees that the person is on their way over and that the county will pay the bill. The homeless are issued bus passes to there, Callahan said.
All of the homeless who were issued vouchers were instructed to return to county welfare offices Wednesday to apply for benefits, county officials said.