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The Working Homeless: Despite Jobs, They Still Need Shelter

December 27, 1987|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

By day Jim Bird sits at a desk in a church basement in Van Nuys and answers a phone, fielding the anger, fear and depression of tenants upset by bad plumbing, leaky ceilings, inadequate heating, or--most traumatic of all--eviction.

At day's end, Bird hops a bus to his home, an undriveable 1975 Plymouth where cold nights are warmed by his 4 1/2-year-old, nameless pet cat.

Describing his "home" as "really just a sleeping unit," Bird, a shy, slight, quiet-spoken 38-year-old with a closely trimmed beard, says wryly, "I don't invite anybody over."

In San Pedro, Debra Augerbright, 25, spends weekdays waiting for her husband, Donald, to return from his $4-an-hour janitor's job to the Harbor Interfaith Shelter. They are temporarily housed there in a two-room apartment decorated with two donated Christmas trees. After school she is joined by her two children, Stephen, 9, and Melissa, 6.

Her husband "took the job just so he could be working, but working just isn't getting it," she says. "Right now the only job I could get is minimum wage and by the time I pay a baby sitter and pay transportation, I'd be working for nothing."

And in Santa Monica, Maria Rodriquez, 24, and her three children, aged 2, 4 and 7, bed down for the night on a sofa in a shelter. She says her husband, Jose Isabel, was elsewhere, getting ready for his minimum-wage night-shift job at a factory somewhere in downtown Los Angeles. For the time being at least, the irreconcilable demands of work and shelter have driven the family apart.

'A Place to Stay'

"The children tell me they want to have a house," the dark-haired, smiling young woman says through an interpreter and constant interruptions from her playful children. "I feel sad because my husband is not with us. . . . At least I have a place to stay right now and something for the children to eat."

All agree that this Christmas season won't be a big one, although they'll make the best of it. Bird, the Augerbrights and the Rodriguez family are part of an apparently expanding dimension of homelessness--those who work but cannot afford a roof of their own.

Twelve days ago, the U.S. Conference of Mayors rang a solemn note to the holiday season by reporting that homelessness, as measured by requests for emergency shelter in 26 cities, is up 21% nationally this year and 25% in Los Angeles.

Perhaps more alarming, a conference spokesman said, the number of homeless people who work is on the increase, rising from 19% of those seeking shelter last year to 22% in 1987. In Los Angeles, where the percentage of homeless people with jobs was not measured last year, the figure was put at 10% this year.

Social workers and others who provide homeless services here tend to agree that working homeless people have become more common over the last year or so. But they stress that measuring the number of working homeless is not an exercise in precision. Many homeless people, possibly most, have recently held jobs and probably will find work--and shelter--in the future, they say.

Then the cycle may be repeated because "they buy a sweater or something and they can't pay the rent," says David Christiansen, executive director of the Harbor Interfaith Shelter.

Christiansen, whose agency helps homeless families become self-supporting while providing emergency shelter, estimates that minimum wage workers, who currently earn $3.35 an hour, must set aside 70% to 80% of income for housing. About 30% of the families who come to the shelter have at least one wage-earner, he added.

"You have to be the tightest money manager in the world to spend 70% to 80% of your money on rent," he explains. (Last week the minimum wage in California was raised to $4.25 per hour, effective next July.)

Often, homeless people "just take jobs and don't even think about the consequences--that they're not going to be able to pay the rent," Christiansen says, adding that he thinks they might be better off on welfare or other subsistence payments such as Social Security.

Tenant counselor Bird, for one, counts himself lucky.

"It's great to have a job that I actually like coming to," says Bird, who declined to be photographed because he doesn't want to be labeled "a poor, homeless car bunny."

Well aware of the irony of his circumstances, Bird says he has earned $250 a week for about a month as a tenant-landlord mediator at Better Valley Services, a nonprofit, private housing agency where he was a volunteer for several months before being put on the payroll.

Bird says he has been homeless off and on for the last two years and steadily homeless for about a year. During that time he has had several jobs, including work in restaurants and a film lab, he says, but has not earned enough or been able to save enough for a place of his own. He calculates it will take him six more weeks before he has enough money for housing.

Bird portrays his slide into homelessness as a gradual descent brought on by illness and burnout from jobs he held working with deaf and handicapped children.

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