SACRAMENTO — Gov. George Deukmejian on Tuesday ordered the California National Guard to open their armories to the homeless and provide overnight shelter against the bone-chilling winter cold.
Under what the governor's office called an "emergency service" assistance program, the armories will be made available at the request of county officials when temperatures fall to 40 degrees.
During the cold spell that has swept the state, overnight temperatures have fallen to that level. Some existing shelters have been turning away those seeking help because of overcrowding.
Effects of Exposure
Deukmejian, noting the danger to health and life resulting from prolonged exposure to the near-freezing weather, said opening the armories "will ensure that homeless individuals are housed when the thermometer reaches these low levels."
There are 109 armories statewide, including 12 in Los Angeles County, 2 in Orange County and 3 in San Diego County, the Guard said. Most of them could provide sleeping space for from 60 to 150 people. In Bell, one armory can house 600, a spokesman said.
Last year, controversy erupted in Los Angeles when at least four street people died of hypothermia in the winter cold.
The governor's action drew mixed reviews from Los Angeles activists who deal with shelter for the homeless. They noted that the city and county have started programs to shelter the homeless in hotels and motels during cold nights.
"Great, excellent," said the Rev. Gene Boutilier, manager of emergency services for United Way, which has contributed $400,000 for the city and county overnight shelter programs. "Having done our part, we are absolutely delighted to see this step by the state."
Larry Johnson, assistant director of the Department of Community and Senior Citizen Services, declared himself "very pleased" and said the move "will be a good supplement to our program. We'll be contacting the commanders of the armories."
However, Nancy Berlin, co-director of the House of Ruth, a shelter in Los Angeles for women and children, said the homeless need help "all the time, not just when it gets cold. There needs to be a permanent solution. There's lots of land and buildings that could be used if the governor was that committed."
Senate leader David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles), author of a $850-million bond issue bill for the homeless, called the governor's program "a good idea, but it is only temporary. The homeless situation begs for a permanent solution."
Gubernatorial press secretary Kevin Brett said that the armories would provide only sleeping space and that related support such as shelter managers, housing equipment, maintenance and any food would have to be provided by the counties.
He said the homeless must leave the military installations during the day but could return at night if bitterly cold temperatures persisted.
When the temperature dropped to 40 degrees or below, counties will be able to request the opening of an armory and then enter into an agreement with the National Guard and the state Office of Emergency Services. The governor would ask the Legislature to reimburse the Guard for any additional costs it incurred in sheltering the homeless.
He said it was difficult for state officials to accurately estimate any costs involved because it is not known how many homeless will be sheltered or where and when the mercury would hit the required 40 degrees.
Brett said that with cold weather sweeping the state, the inspiration for making armories temporary shelters came from officials of the state Health and Welfare Agency and from local officials. Deukmejian agreed to the plan, which went into immediate effect.