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Health, Safety Violations Close Church Shelter : Homeless: Officials say epidemic of dysentery at Bible Tabernacle was due to overcrowding. It is the largest family shelter on the Westside.

February 16, 1992|SHAWN DOHERTY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VENICE — Bible Tabernacle, a little stucco church in Venice that has been home to thousands of families with nowhere else to go, has been shut down by county officials for violations of health and safety standards.

The church is the largest family shelter on the Westside. It was quarantined last month after officials discovered an epidemic of dysentery due to unsanitary conditions they claimed was caused by the crowding of more than 200 people in the tiny church. At last count, 41 residents at the shelter had contracted the disease.

Officials with the county Department of Building and Safety also cracked down again on the facility last month, notifying the staff that the church is not zoned to house people and ordering it to close the makeshift shelter. Church officials have applied for a six-month extension on the order.

Staff at the church say that they have corrected health and safety violations, and that pressure from neighbors, not safety problems, is forcing them to close their doors.

The quarantine caused officials to turn away scores of additional homeless families seeking shelter during last week's storms. "It was heart-rending," said church director Willie Pace. "We watched families walk away in the rain, and we had nowhere to send them."

Since it opened in 1971 on a mission to spread its religious teachings throughout the community, Bible Tabernacle has also offered food and shelter to homeless families. The church can continue to house about 60 people in four apartments it owns nearby, but it can no longer accommodate the overflow in the church itself, where sometimes more than 100 people ended up staying for months at a time. There are only two bathrooms in the church, with a total of four stalls, and the families slept anywhere they could, with children often crowded into the pews. Despite the crowding and a requirement that people who stay in the shelter participate in 5 a.m. prayers and evening bible studies, hundreds of people stayed at the shelter during peak periods. When officials ordered the church shelter closed last month, more than 200 people, 160 of them children, were living there.

"It was so crowded we was touching head to head," recalled Jeanette Bell, who has been staying at the shelter with her husband and five children, ages 2 to 11.

"There's only two stalls in the bathroom, and they don't have doors. Sometimes it was clean, sometimes it wasn't."

Even so, Bell said, "I thank God for the shelter. We don't have nowhere else to go except the street."

But health officials say that sleeping on the street would be preferable to what inspectors discovered last month.

"Conditions were indecent," said Dr. Shirley Fannin, director of disease control for the county Department of Health Services.

Fannin said that, for eight years, officials have warned church officials that it violated health and safety codes. However, overcrowding and unsanitary conditions continued, Fannin said, leading to recurrent epidemics of diseases.

"Enough is enough," Fannin said. "One of these days it could be an epidemic that kills. We can no longer allow women and children to put up with these conditions."

Neighbors who live in the homes near the shelter have been lobbying local politicians and officials to shut down the shelter for years. They complain that the homeless create crime and noise, toss garbage into their yards, urinate on the sidewalks and panhandle.

"A lot of, like, grungy people are hanging around, which scares me," said Claudia Ray, a resident who worries that the homeless could cause crime. In fact, Ray is considering moving out of the neighborhood.

Officials with homeless shelters and services on the Westside say that Bible Tabernacle has always been the shelter of last resort for families.

"It's overcrowded and conditions aren't ideal," said Fern Seizer, director of the Venice Family Clinic, which cares for many homeless families and runs a weekly clinic at the Bible Tabernacle. "But the government isn't providing any other place for many of these people."

"We don't got nowhere else to go," agreed Michelle Heredia, 14, who has been sleeping on the floor of the church with her mother since they became homeless last November.

Only Oscar Vasquez, 13, could think of a solution. "I will go work in gardens for money," he said. "Then my family will have a place to stay."

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