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A Private Citizen's War On Poverty

February 20, 1988|RAY PEREZ | Times Staff Writer

About 150 people, mostly transient men, had crowded into the National Guard Armory in Santa Ana to spend the night out of the cold and rain. Scott Mather worked feverishly, setting up cots and distributing blankets for the overnight guests.

Before Mather, one of the county's best-known champions of the poor and homeless, could go home to his own warm bed in Costa Mesa, he had one more detail to attend to: locating a willing driver to transport several of the men to the bus depot the next morning.

So Mather used his secret weapon: the art of friendly persuasion. He approached a visitor and asked whether he would drive the battered van parked outside. The visitor initially demurred, but before dawn the next morning, the groggy-eyed man had made two trips in the old van.

Later, munching on a chicken sandwich at a restaurant in Costa Mesa, Mather laughed at the memory.

"Hey, we got to help these people the best we can, and whatever it takes, you have to do," he said.

For most of the last 15 years, Mather has quietly increased his community involvement, taking on more and more responsibility to provide for those less fortunate.

While others pass out sandwiches on dark, grimy streets, he talks to the homeless in hushed tones, asking how they feel or what services would help them best.

Driving one night through Santa Ana in his 8-year-old sports car, Mather slowed at several locations, conducting an informal search for old apartments and houses that could be converted into shelters for the homeless.

A husky, bearded man who is neither boisterous nor outgoing, Mather's commitment is one that burns inside. He is not comfortable talking about himself and almost always refers to his successes as "our" accomplishments.

The vision and the planning for future programs to help the homeless and the poor consume much of Mather's time. While he once preferred to work "the front lines" of the fight against poverty--dispensing food and clothing on the streets--he is now an organizer who pleads with, influences and otherwise cajoles others to help.

For Mather, the reason to be involved is relatively simple.

"It's our responsibility as members of the community to be involved in the community," he said. "Not everybody can make it on his own."

Beginning in 1975, Mather has structured his life to accomplish his goal of highlighting the problems of being poor in the county and finding community support to solve those problems.

For the past eight years, he has been the backbone of the Orange Coast Interfaith Shelter, a nine-unit complex in Costa Mesa to help homeless families get back on their feet. Families may stay in the shelter for up to 60 days, until they can get on better financial footing and save enough money to pay the rent and deposits they need for their own apartments.

From a cluttered and cramped office in Newport Beach--where his wife, Kay, practically runs his small, independent insurance practice--Mather is constantly on the phone. Mather, 44, is the father of four, including two grown children.

If he is not looking for blankets and food to distribute, he might be talking with others like himself across the state, exchanging information or planning strategy to find new solutions to an age-old problem.

Although his dedication and tireless efforts have remained constant through the years, Mather's vision is always in transition. Mather said he believes that the homeless problem in the county has been defined and that the county's most affluent citizens have been apprised that "there are serious poverty problems here."

Mather said he sees a need to generate more community and political involvement in what he believes has become the county's most serious social problem.

Armed with statistics compiled by his network of fellow volunteers, Mather also identified a much bigger obstacle: the homeless problem will not be solved until the severe shortage of adequate housing has been alleviated.

"This is a land-use issue, not just a social issue," he said.

Only recently, Mather tied into HandsNet, a computer network of 51 state volunteer groups. Almost daily, he checks facts and figures updating the plight of poverty.

For example, through the network Mather recently learned that the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation estimated that the state will lose a net 110,000 low-income housing units by the year 2000--at a time when housing for the poor is already stretched to its limit.

"We have a housing crisis in the state that makes it tougher to solve the problem," he said. "We can try to get (the homeless) on their feet, but where are they going to go?"

Only in the past few years, Mather said, have residents been made aware of the pockets of poverty in generally affluent Orange County. He said that in 1982 about 700 homeless people were counted here. That figure grew to 4,200 by 1985.

Now, about 6,000 people in the county are homeless.

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