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Where Comebacks Start : Bell Shelter Offers the Homeless More Than Just a Roof

January 01, 1989|JAMES M. GOMEZ | Times Staff Writer

BELL — Every evening, William P. Morris arrives at the Bell Homeless Shelter--and dives into his thick auto mechanics textbook and class notes.

He expects to graduate from auto mechanics school soon and hopes to find a job that will pay for permanent housing.

"I'm studying as hard as I can," Morris, 27, said recently as he waited for a Salvation Army van to take him from the shelter to classes in Compton. "I'm an artist, but an artist has to give up a lot. You don't make much money doing that." He came to Southern California from Texas three months ago looking for work.

The shelter on Rickenbacker Road seeks out men and women in Morris' situation--people who can't afford a place to live and can't find a permanent job, but have a desire to change all that.

Unlike many other shelters in the county, the operators of the Bell shelter focus on helping homeless people gain job skills, find work and save money, said Salvation Army Capt. David Hudson, administrator of the 18,000-square-foot facility, a remodeled federal warehouse.

The founders of the shelter have teamed up with various businesses, who provide temporary and permanent work, and the Unified Schools of America in Compton, which offers courses for students seeking jobs as security guards and auto mechanics.

The trade school's 8-week courses, which cost $3,090, are paid for with government subsidies and private donations to the Salvation Army, officials said. The school then provides job-placement services.

"All I've ever had is on-the-job-training--fast-food places, things like that," Morris said. "But if I can get myself a trade, I can get a better job and then have my own place." Morris, who spent a month on the streets of Hollywood, has lived at the temporary shelter for eight weeks.

The 200-bed Bell Homeless Shelter opened a year ago through the efforts of U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Harry Pregerson, who persuaded officials of the Salvation Army, the city and the General Services Administration--which owns the warehouse--to work out an operating agreement.

Pregerson also approached executives of Trammell Crow Co., which owns 450 acres across the street for offices and light industry, to assist the job-finding efforts of the shelter. Charles Mather, a Trammell Crow representative, interviews homeless people and has helped more than a dozen find work in the industrial warehouses and offices near the shelter, Pregerson said.

Pregerson said he began working to convert the federal warehouse into a shelter after reading a newspaper account of how four men froze to death in Los Angeles in February, 1987. "It took me 10 months to bring this thing to fruition," Pregerson said. "I figured we had to get (the homeless) out of the cold and the rain."

But he also wanted to establish a facility that would help people find work.

"Many of them are simply down on their luck," Pregerson said. The temporary residents, many of whom stay an average of 2 to 3 months, become "like a family, the only family they have," he said, as they get to know one another.

\o7 John Westell, a Chattanooga, Tenn., native who has lived in the shelter for three weeks, is also studying at the Compton school. His enthusiasm about his progress is tempered by the story of how he ended up homeless and penniless.

"I was disowned," he said with a sly grin as he waited in a line of about a dozen other men to take a shower at the Bell shelter Christmas night. Some sang along with a Salvation Army band playing Christmas music in the corner of the building. Others mingled around the cavernous warehouse and cheerfully discussed future plans.

Westell said he came to Los Angeles almost a year ago to join a religious sect that offered spiritual and emotional guidance and provided a job and an apartment. Then, he said, he began to question the sect's teachings. "They told me one day that I couldn't stay if I didn't agree with them," he said. "I told them they weren't teaching the Bible, so they denounced me."

A vast majority of the center's residents have recently arrived from out of state. Most of them are single, and about 80% are men, officials said. No children are referred to the Bell facility.

Although a few come from the Bell area, most of the homeless men and women have been referred to the shelter after being interviewed at one of the Salvation Army day centers in Hollywood, Compton, Long Beach and East Los Angeles and being transported by Salvation Army vans to Bell, administrator Hudson said. The day centers offer no overnight shelter.

Once at the Bell facility, a full-time Salvation Army career counselor directs them either to the Compton trade school or to various job pools or job-hunting agencies, Hudson said. When they return each evening between 5 and 7, they are searched for drugs, alcohol and weapons and checked for intoxication. The shelter is closed during the day.

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