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ANGELS FOR THE HOMELESS : Builders Donate Materials, Labor Through HomeAid

May 05, 1991|EVELYN DE WOLFE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"When you're middle class and a professional with no job or a place to stay, it can be harder than being poor," said Valerie N., recounting her ordeal as a homeless person. "One feels so helpless . . . and isolated."

Eighteen months ago Valerie's world seemed on the verge of collapse.

A bitter custody battle over her 7-year-old son, compounded by the pressures of a full-time job and long-term care of an ill parent, left her physically and emotionally exhausted.

To add to the trauma, she was in a car accident, her mother died and she lost her job. When Valerie, 39, could no longer pay the rent, she and her son moved in with friends--for a week at a time. Eventually, there was no place left to go.

"I got on the phone and began calling various agencies. But it soon became clear that I wasn't eligible for public assistance. The only option left was to beg for shelter.

"Friendship House in Laguna Beach was the only place I could find that would take me in with my child."

The shelter provided not only food and a secure place to stay, but helped her regain her self-worth and prepared her to rejoin the mainstream. She has since found a job and rents a small home.

Just as Valerie found her guardian angel in Friendship House, the shelter has its own guardian angels--members of Orange County's Building Industry Assn., who have donated labor and materials to renovate and expand the old 12-bedroom hotel and to build a new kitchen.

For the past two years, Southland builders have been helping the homeless and needy in the five regions that form the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California (BIA/SC).

Their good works are accomplished through HomeAid--a broad-based nonprofit program that provides emergency shelters or transitional housing for the homeless, and low-cost, permanent housing for low-income people.

Conceived in 1989 by BIA/SC's Coalition for the Homeless and first implemented by BIA Orange County, HomeAid now involves 2,600 companies owned by builders, architects and industry-related tradespeople in the Southland.

HomeAid is the first effort of its kind in the United States and has become a model for housing groups in Northern California, Nevada, Florida, Pennsylvania and Vermont.

"There are countless vulnerable families living on the brink of homelessness," said George Lightner, BIA/SC president and chairman of the HomeAid board.

"For many, a single event, like an eviction, an accident or an illness can precipitate it.

"Builders read the papers and watch the news like anyone else, and because shelter is our business and we know how to build safe and cost-effective structures, we feel an obligation to assist," Lightner said.

"What I appreciate is the ethical statement that is being made by BIA's HomeAid program," said the Rev. Jonathan T. Glass, rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church and president of the non-denominational St. Mark's Homeless Shelter, whose facility in Upland is BIA-San Bernardino's 1991 Adopt-a-Shelter project.

"Builders who make their living from real estate development are dealing primarily with affluent people. On the other side of the spectrum are the people who are being priced out of the majority of such opportunities. BIA's involvement helps deal with that reality."

HomeAid tries to address short- and long-term housing needs, according to Judy Lenthall, president of HomeAid.

A former senior housing planner for the city of San Diego, Lenthall helped create almost 2,500 low-income single room occupancy (SRO) residential hotel units during her tenure in that community.

HomeAid is a two-pronged effort, she said.

"The first is our Adopt-a-Shelter commitment by local chapter members and focuses on the rehabilitation, modernization, maintenance or new construction of emergency or transitional housing.

"The second aspect of our program is to help establish affordable housing for low-income renters as a more permanent solution for homelessness.

"We do this either by ourselves or in joint venture with nonprofit agencies or for-profit developers."

One of HomeAid's main functions is to coordinate the volunteer team effort of BIA builders, said Mitchell Bradford of Kaufman & Broad, a HomeAid board member.

"This effort is from the heart," he said. "It's fulfilling to take a few hours from one's job to show up at a site, roll up one's sleeves along with other volunteer builders, electricians, plumbers, carpenters and get a job done for the needy. We wish we could do more.

"The rehabilitation of existing facilities is the first logical step in the kind of assistance builders are able to give. And it's one where they can see immediate results," he said.

Bradford added that enthusiasm for the HomeAid program is high, despite the downturn in the building industry and the time-consuming inspection process that make volunteering a heavy decision.

Ideally, Lenthall noted, the thrust of full-scale HomeAid projects should be in private/public partnerships that combine the resources of both sectors.

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