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Home at Last : 'Beyond Shelter' Program Wages War on Homelessness by Providing Families Long-Range Housing Alternatives


Sometimes, late at night--in the quiet, in the dark--Maria Ortega would sit outside her family's desert home in Michoacan, Mexico, and dream of a better life in El Norte with her husband, Federico. The dream was to have a house with a shiny new kitchen, carpeted floors and, the most important luxury, real beds with box springs and clean sheets.

But eight years later, the Ortegas' life was anything but a dream. They lived in a cardboard shack barely five feet high, with no gas or running water, a single dangling light bulb above a small refrigerator and a mattress shared by her five children while she and Federico slept on a concrete floor.

The Ortegas, legal residents who immigrated to the United States in 1982, paid a monthly rent of $100 for that nightmare. They spent one-third of their income from Federico's job as a warehouse employee in downtown Los Angeles to live in an East Los Angeles chicken coop.

Today the Ortegas live in a spacious three-story, four-bedroom, two-bathroom Whittier townhouse for $221 a month. The fulfillment of their dream--the subsidized rent, the stainless steel sinks, beds for all the children, the security and the dignity--is a result of a concerned social worker who heard about their living conditions and sent them to Beyond Shelter.

The nonprofit social service agency secured move-in money--first- and last-month's rent, plus a security deposit--and enrolled the Ortegas in a government subsidy program that allows low-income tenants to pay rent on a sliding scale.

Beyond Shelter is a new twist in the war against homelessness. While more than 160 shelters and programs throughout Los Angeles County offer temporary relief from two weeks to two months, Beyond Shelter founder Tanya Tull says she wanted to focus on permanent housing. By tapping into existing housing funds offered by state and local governments, Beyond Shelter aims to do just what its name implies.

Tull says her 18-month-old agency has placed 105 families, including 300 children, in permanent housing across Los Angeles. The apartments range from townhomes in upper middle-class neighborhoods to units in government-subsidized buildings. Depending on a family's income and the requirements for several rental programs, rent ranges from $160 for a family of two to $650 for a family of five or larger.

About 75% of Beyond Shelter's families are single mothers with three or more children who have an average monthly income of $800. Because many mothers cannot afford child care, they do not work and they receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children, food stamps and supplemental government assistance. About 20% of Beyond Shelter's clients are employed; the majority receive minimum wage.

A former Los Angeles County social worker, Tull, 47, is president of Para Los Ninos (For the Children), a Skid Row social service agency she founded in 1979 that now has an annual budget of $1.4 million. Four years later, Tull co-founded the nonprofit Los Angeles Family Housing Corp., which develops low-cost housing for families with children. She also helped start two temporary shelters for the homeless, the Gramercy Place Shelter in 1986 and Chernow House two years later.

After a private donor contributed $50,000 in start-up money, Beyond Shelter opened its doors at 4032 Wilshire Blvd. With a staff of 11 people and a budget of $310,000 for its first operational year, the agency is still developing support and awareness of its work "to inform people, especially interested landlords, that there are solutions to homelessness," says Tull, who adds that she is also seeking financial support from several foundations, corporations and private individuals.

The screening procedures for families take several weeks. "We will only work with families who want to work with us," Tull says. "We lay out all the cards on the table, everything about their family history, their problems and what they want for their future."

Apartments are secured from landlords "empathetic, not sympathetic to the homeless," Tull explains, and clients' move-in costs--which can be as much as $2,500--are paid from government resources including the state's Homeless Assistance Program, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and foundations and social service agencies such as On Your Feet. Homeless families, Tull says, are usually unaware of these resources.

Nicole Pagourgis, co-founder and director of On Your Feet, says her program has provided almost $80,000 for rental assistance, furnishings and for getting utilities turned on for 85 Beyond Shelter families.

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