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County's Homeless Get Cold Shoulder From Bureaucracy

January 12, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

Nothing is simple.

I got to wondering after our coldest weekend of the year why the Santa Ana and Fullerton armories had to be closed down to the homeless people who had found haven there on previous frigid nights. I knew the party line. National Guard exercises were scheduled last weekend, and under the governor's order that opened the armories to the homeless (on request of the appropriate county), Guard activities were to take precedence.

OK, but what if people were freezing to death? Couldn't the Guard activities be rescheduled or the program modified to make the armories available at night when the suffering is greatest? Or is this just a flabby, soft-headed liberal type of question?

Scott Mather didn't think so. He's the insurance agent who devotes 20 hours a week of volunteer time to head the Orange County Homeless Task Force. He said displacing the homeless on the coldest night of the year was a tough set of priorities for him to understand, "but the reality is that the way the mandate came from the governor, our use of the armories is dependent strictly on their availability. It was especially tough because we didn't know in advance the Guard was going to be using them."

So where did the homeless who had previously been put up at Orange County armories go last weekend when the weather left a filament of frost all over the county?

"About 10 churches called and offered emergency facilities," said Mather. "A lot of volunteers came together to help. We had buses to pick homeless people up at designated points--about 110 people in Santa Ana, 80 in Fullerton and 40 in Mission Viejo. We took in everybody who came to us."

Another crisis survived, but still the basic question remained. So I asked Maj. Steve Mensik, a spokesman for the National Guard in Sacramento, if armories throughout the state had been similarly closed. He said that 14 California armories had housed homeless people during the weekend and that three others had confined their drills to the daytime and were available to the homeless at night.

When I asked why this hadn't been possible in Santa Ana or Fullerton, he said that not all Guard units drilled on the first weekend of the month and that those that did had quite different programs, only a few of which would permit using them for shelters on drill weekends. He also said that the Guard schedule is set up a year in advance and the county had been provided a copy.

As for making an exception under crisis conditions, Mensik said: "We haven't been faced with a problem like that, but someone up here would have to make such a decision. We take orders from civilians, and we won't substitute our judgment for the civilians who run us. Under the governor's order, National Guard training has priority, but I suppose adjustments could be made to deal with critical needs. The county would have to make such a request through the state Office of Emergency Services. And as far as I know, no such request was made."

Indeed it wasn't, says Margaret Beck, program manager of the Orange County Social Services Agency, who blames the lack of knowledge of a Guard drill in Santa Ana last weekend on "miscommunication between my office and the Guard. We know the schedule now, and it won't happen again. But we were still able to take care of everyone who wanted help."

As for requesting an exception from the National Guard, "we communicated our problem to the Office of Emergency Services, and that option wasn't offered to me," she said, adding: "The Guard has been nothing but cooperative, and I don't think they deserve a bad press."

Out on the firing line, Scott Mather listens to all of this and sighs and does what he has to do--which is to get homeless people into warm shelters on cold nights. He would rather talk about permanent solutions anyway. "Homelessness," he says, "is a symptom of the housing crisis. As HUD funds continue to be cut in Washington, homelessness rises in almost direct proportion. It's going to take a national will to solve it, and the private sector can't do it all."

The good news is that Mather sees a growing willingness on the part of Orange County's public agencies and private corporations to address the problem. His organization has developed a 5-year plan to provide permanent facilities throughout the county to deal with the homeless, "and we're finding increased sympathy in Orange County to this point of view. We're getting real help from areas of the private sector that simply wouldn't have been interested 5 years ago."

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