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Self-Help for Homeless Is a New Tactic

December 30, 1988|PAT GERBER | Times Staff Writer

Paul Wood remembers the incident that pushed his simmering discontent over not having a permanent address into a boiling anger.

It was 3 in the morning in a Ralph's supermarket parking lot in Garden Grove. Wood, his wife and three children had been living in their camper for more than a year. Tired of being hassled by police in the local park, the Woods and a small band of homeless acquaintances had struck an agreement with the store's management: In return for keeping the lot clean, they could park overnight for free. But despite the agreement, police put flyers on windshields citing a city ordinance against living in cars.

Then in the middle of the night, someone banged loud and hard on Wood's camper door. Wood's bleary-eyed wife answered it. She was met by a police officer.

"You get your (expletive) ass out of here and out of Garden Grove and don't come back," Wood remembers the police officer yelling at his wife.

"No damn respect," Wood snorts in his sandpaper voice, puffing on a cigarette.

His anger today, however, is tempered by a measure of self-content. As executive director of the Homeless Action Project, Wood, 47, advises other homeless people who have experienced similar treatment on how to fill out police-abuse forms and file them with the county's Human Relations Commission. He also teaches homeless people how to collect Social Security or welfare, how to write a resume and find a job--or, if they are already working, how to find a better-paying job--and where to get emergency shelter, food and medical or dental care.

The Homeless Action Project, which survives mostly on donations, recently was awarded a $9,000 grant through United Way.

Homeless doesn't necessarily mean helpless, Wood has discovered. "We teach the homeless to help themselves," he said. It is a message that he delivers, along with food, blankets and information, to the homeless people he visits twice daily in Garden Grove Park or who come to his small, crowded office in a one-story cluster of suites at 9776 Katella Ave. in Garden Grove.

Wood is not alone in thinking that no one takes care of "you" better than yourself. Several homeless shelters in Orange County have based their programs on the philosophy that being responsible is a solid step in countering the most insidious afflictions affecting the homeless: depression and lack of self-respect.

Christian Temporary Housing is the oldest family shelter in Orange County. The organization accepts only families with children, who can stay up to 60 days. The families help run the shelter--one full-time director is a former homeless person--and are required to do their own cooking and cleaning. They also are required to save about 80% of their income--from jobs the shelter helps them find or from government checks--so that they can begin to survive on their own. The shelter also tries to help them find permanent housing.

The shelter was started 11 years ago by Mike Elias, who came to Costa Mesa from Maryland, a single father with his two young sons, on the promise of a job and housing. Neither materialized. Elias and his children lived in their car for a while before going to Christian Temporary Housing, which at that time was about to fold. Elias agreed to take over management and over the years developed the program that exists today. He eventually raised enough money from donations and government grants to buy a house. Today, Christian Temporary Housing runs shelters in Tustin and Orange. In November, Elias moved to Norwalk to start a new shelter.

When Elias found himself homeless for the first time in his life, he discovered that shelters in Orange County were almost nonexistent. And those that did provide help also separated families, simply provided handouts or subjected people to a religious message, whether they wanted to hear it or not.

"It really angered me," Elias said. "A box of food? What do you do with a box of food when you're living in your car" and have no place to cook it?

Elias vowed to supply dignity along with food and shelter in the program he developed. He is a strong believer in programs that require the able-bodied and sound of mind among the homeless--excluding children, battered children or runaways--to help themselves. He noted, however, that his is not a popular view among homeless advocates who think the government should take more of the blame.

"(The thinking) that everything is just a handout has got to stop," Elias said. "It takes a lifetime to get ahead," which doesn't stop at simply getting a job. "Our people are doing that. They're not just sitting around waiting for a meal."

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