By their own accounts, Mark Dwyer and Jeffrey Penninger have lived in the bleakest of places, from crawl spaces beneath old buildings to garages, tents in local parks and run-down hotels. For years, neither man has known a steady home life. Until now, that is.
Dwyer, 47, and Penninger, 26, are among two dozen people living in West Hollywood's new homeless shelter, the renovated second floor of a furniture warehouse on La Brea Avenue south of Santa Monica Boulevard.
The West Hollywood Homeless Organization, a nonprofit corporation set up by the city, opened the facility last November. The city has contributed about $2 million to the facility. The shelter also is funded by county, state and federal money and by private donations. The 50-bed shelter is the only round-the-clock program of its kind on the Westside. People can reside in the shelter for up to 60 days, and a new transitional program will be ready in September to accommodate an additional 20 long-term residents for up to six months.
Meals are provided, as are shower facilities, medical services, and drug and alcohol counseling. Local social service agencies also can tend to people after they have left the shelter.
Counselors say the shelter aims to help residents get back into the community. So far, the shelter has won praise from homeless advocates and city officials, who see it as an innovative response to the city's growing homeless population, estimated by city officials at 500 or more.
"We are offering more than a cot for the night," said Bob Erlenbusch, the homeless organization's executive director. "We are linking these people back into the community and to a network of social services that they never knew existed. It's an opportunity for them to stabilize their lives, to get off of the streets for good."
But the shelter also has drawn criticism from some east side community and business groups, who claim that the number of homeless in the city does not exceed 60. Critics say the city should spend money reserved for the shelter on larger, more needy groups, including the elderly and AIDS patients.
"This is a case of misplaced priorities," said Tad Bright, co-chairman of Eastend Community Action, a neighborhood group that has opposed the idea of a shelter on the city's east side. "This is too much money being thrown at too small a problem. If the city really wants to do something for people with drug and alcohol problems, why not give more funding to agencies that deal with those problems. There simply aren't enough homeless in West Hollywood to warrant the kind of funding the shelter is receiving."
Critics from the business community also say the shelter will draw more homeless. Mike Radcliffe, president of the Movietown Plaza Merchants' Assn., said the shelter has had little effect on the homeless who hang out at the shopping plaza, two blocks north of the shelter, between Fuller Avenue and Poinsettia Place.
"If we were seeing improvements on the streets, I think the business community would acquiesce and support the shelter," Radcliffe said. "But we have the same problems we had two years ago. We don't think this new approach will have a positive impact, but we do think it will announce to the rest of Los Angeles that West Hollywood is ready and waiting" for more homeless.
Officials in the city's Human Services Department insist that the criticisms are unfounded. The shelter will take in people only upon referral from local social-service agencies, they said. The shelter is not available on a walk-in basis.
The apprehensions about the shelter stem from problems that existed with a city-sponsored feeding program in Plummer Park over the past two years, the officials say. That program brought more homeless people--and crime--to the city's east end, residents there said. In response to the criticisms, the city closed down the program last March.
"The feeding program and the shelter are not one and the same," said Lloyd Long, director of the city's Human Services Department. "This is a model program set up to help out those who want to help themselves. It is not an announcement to 'Come one, come all.' "
For those who do come, the program appears to be making a difference. Both Dwyer and Penninger said they are intent on saving money and finding apartments on their own. Penninger already has begun working in the computer department of a local television station. Dwyer is focusing for the time being on his counseling sessions. He intends to keep them up once he leaves the shelter. Both hope to leave the shelter within two months.
Both are filled with surprise and optimism over the help they have received at the shelter. "This is not the way the homeless are treated," Dwyer said. "Usually, these shelters give you a few hours of sleep then tell you to get the hell out. But here someone actually wants to listen to me. Someone cares whether or not I slept under a bridge."
"We are recovering here," Penninger added. "We are fighting back to become productive again. We want to be a part of the community, not apart from it."