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Researcher Tries to Stay in Stride With Homeless

January 02, 1988|ESTHER SCHRADER | Times Staff Writer

It was a rainy day, and Ray Schreiner was in the mood to talk.

Comfortably ensconced in the cab of Jim Reed's Suburu Brat, the homeless man chewed tobacco and spoke animatedly to Reed about his experiences in Vietnam and his Tennessee childhood.

When the Salvation Army volunteers across the street began packing up what was left of the food they were giving out and the regular crowd of hungry began to leave, Schreiner got out of the truck, picked up his possessions, took a last piece of bread and said goodby as he set off down the street.

"You can react to him in one of two ways," Reed said as he pulled his car away from the curb. "You can smile, or you can cry."

A 34-year-old graduate student in counseling at California State University, Northridge, Reed spends four days a week with people like Schreiner as part of an unusual, 10-month study of the homeless in the Glendale-Burbank area. He is conducting the research for the Verdugo Mental Health Center with the help of a $20,000 county grant.

Reed bypasses conventional methods in his study, focusing not on the numbers of people on the streets, but on the reasons some of them are there. His study of more than 80 homeless people, so far, is one of a growing number of efforts nationwide to research the issue by talking to homeless people themselves.

Lots of Numbers, Few Details

"One of the biggest difficulties in working with the homeless is there isn't enough real data that's been gathered at very close range," Reed said. "Everybody's got their theories, but no one really talks to these people to find out what's really going on. We've got lots of numbers, but little that deals with the homeless as people."

Verdugo Mental Health Center, a private, nonprofit clinic in Glendale, has long provided counseling to low-income walk-in patients, said Lynn Bourdon, the clinic's director of administrative services. When Wayne Jones, executive director of the clinic, discovered county financing was available to support work with the homeless, he submitted a proposal.

In September, the center received the grant for the study from the county Department of Community and Senior Citizens Services. But the clinic had no one to work on the research and little idea of what exactly it would entail until Reed, who heard about the grant from a friend, submitted a proposal, Jones said.

Although many local public and private organizations provide food or shelter to the homeless, those organizations fail to help a large segment of the population, directors of those agencies agree.

Different Strokes

"Any program that's going to deal with the homeless is going to have to deal with the fact that everybody's life is slightly different," Reed said. "The programs have to be malleable enough to cope with the differences in people's lives."

Reed is focusing his study on homeless in the mental health center's coverage area--Burbank, Glendale, La Canada Flintridge, La Crescenta, Montrose and parts of northern Pasadena. When the study is finished, by July 1, 1988, Jones said, it will be distributed to public and private social agencies throughout the county.

National advocates for the homeless say Reed's method--of going out and getting to know the people on the streets--is unconventional. Those advocates say that probably fewer than 10 such studies have been completed nationwide, most of them in the last two years. More common are studies based on interviews with people on the front lines of dealing with the homeless--workers and directors of shelters and social agencies, said Maria Foscarinis, counsel to the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington.

But, as innovative as Reed's study may be, some national homeless advocates challenge both its methodology and its usefulness. They suggest that psychological studies of the homeless ignore the growing numbers of people who are on the streets for economic, not emotional, reasons.

"Generally, studies in which people try to go out and interview homeless people have the danger of perpetuating a stereotype," Foscarinis said. "If you go out and look for people who look homeless, you are in serious danger of ignoring people who don't look like what we think of as homeless, but are."

That criticism appears to supported by the results of Reed's study so far. More than 95% of the homeless people Reed has interviewed are white males and Vietnam veterans, whereas national surveys suggest that more than one-third of the homeless are women with young children.

Reed acknowledges the study's weaknesses but said he is making an effort to interview the less-visibly homeless as well. He says those will be harder to find, but he is confident that he will be able to interview at least a representative sampling of them.

"It's a little like trying to locate elves. When you try to find them, they're gone," he said. "They just sort of skitter away."

But locating those hard-to-reach street people may well be the most important aspect of Reed's research, homeless advocates say.

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