Margaret was missing. She had been missing for days.
"I can't handle this," said Gina Golde, her pale blue eyes scanning the sidewalk as her camper crawled through Beverly Hills. "She just disappeared."
Golde knew that the odds of Margaret remaining in one place were poor. Mentally impaired homeless people have a tendency to wander. But Golde had formed a bond of friendship with Margaret, a disheveled woman who lived for a while on the immaculate lawn of a Beverly Hills park. And suddenly the bond was broken.
Golde, a registered nurse, met Margaret through a new Westside-based program called Project Homebase. Members of the staff, Golde and two others, spend their time cruising the streets--delivering food, cigarettes, medical care and a dim ray of hope to the mentally ill homeless.
The 5-week-old program, which received a six-month grant of $115,000 from Los Angeles County, is administered by the family service wing of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles. The short-term goal is to contact those people who are too sick to help themselves. The long-range goal is to get them off the streets.
Working From a Camper
"These are the fragile of the fragile," said Robbie Markovic, a 28-year-old social worker who heads the program. "Through repeated and caring contact with them, we hope that we will effect some change in these people's lives."
The Project Homebase team works out of a camper equipped with a stove, shower, bathroom and beds. Last week, as the group prepared to depart from the Jewish Federation office on Wilshire Boulevard, its small refrigerator was stocked with peanut butter sandwiches. Cigarettes were stored in the upper cabinets. Other drawers were filled with medical supplies and used clothing. The sandwiches and cigarettes are used as peace offerings, Markovic said said, because many of the people they encounter are antisocial or delusional.
Markovic and Golde were joined by Blyth (Butch) Colbert, who drives the camper. As Colbert turned onto Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills, an area popular with joggers, pedestrians, dogs and dozens of homeless people, the Project Homebase team immediately spotted one of their targets.
The man they call "Robert" or "Hanging Beard" was sitting on a park bench. A battered black suitcase was at his side. He was wearing a blue ski cap pulled to eye level and a thick maroon parka, although it was a warm sunny day. He also sported a long gray beard, hence the nickname.
"He's a paranoid schizophrenic," Markovic said. "He won't speak much."
Markovic grabbed a bag lunch and a pack of cigarettes from the camper and approached Robert slowly. As Robert looked on, Markovic gently placed the items on the bench beside him. Robert nodded as he walked away. Markovic recorded the time and date of the encounter in a book as the camper took off. Other names in the book included "Ma Bell," a woman who lives in a telephone booth, and the "Dirt Face." Markovic said the team builds trust through daily contact.
Many mentally ill homeless people such as Robert are surprisingly easy to spot in the urban thicket of Los Angeles, the team said. The men
usually have scraggly beards. Most wear hats and jackets, no matter what the weather. The women tend to be dressed haphazardly. Their faces are often leathery from overexposure to the sun.
There are thousands of homeless people in Los Angeles County and experts estimate that a quarter of them are mentally ill. A large percentage of them are former mental patients who have been released by institutions. The Project Homebase team members work slowly. They consider their day a success if they see even a handful of people. But they have already contacted nearly 100.
"We work out a plan for each person we form a regular relationship with," said Golde, 30. "And we see five regulars and five new people every day."
"The ultimate goal is to get them into shelters or find them medication and benefits," Markovic added. "One of our frustrations is that once we get someone to go to a shelter, we discover that there are no beds available."
The Project Homebase team coordinates with other private and governmental agencies. They also work with Westside-area police.
Only a fraction of the mentally ill homeless are violent, according to Markovic. But the camper is equipped with a telephone in case of emergencies and Colbert, an imposing man with a deep voice, usually deals with the most threatening-looking people.
Appreciation Not Universal
As the camper headed east on Santa Monica Boulevard, the Project Homebase team spotted a woman sleeping on a bench beside a shopping cart. The woman, known as Susan, was a regular. She appeared to be middle-aged. Her hair was gray and her stomach protruded from a pair of loose-fitting pants. Golde said that Susan occasionally thanks her when she drops off lunch and cigarettes.
"I sense that she appreciates us," Golde said. "Not everybody does."