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Food and Charity : Giving Shelter

December 19, 1993|MICHELLE HUNEVEN

Sunday morning at Neighborhood Church in Pasadena, a 4-year-old girl walks up to the wooden shelves wheeled onto the patio and carefully places two cans of chicken noodle soup between a tube of Crest toothpaste and a box of Bisquick. She knows that the food on these shelves will go someplace to feed other children like herself, except that those children don't have a home of their own. Or a father who lives with them. The children who will eat her cans of soup have lived with their mothers at a place called Hestia House.

Hestia House is a shelter for homeless women and children that operates under the auspices of the YWCA of Pasadena. The families live there without charge for two months. During that time, the women try to build up both their emotional and financial resources. Under a mandated savings plan, they save 80% of their income and 60% of their food stamps. The goal is for each woman to save enough money to start a new life--to find an apartment and have enough money to feed her children.

Not so long ago, 60 days was long enough for a person to save for the deposits and rent on an apartment. No more. Many women now have to go to two, even three shelters before they save enough to rent a home of their own. Some go from shelters to motels.

In addition to rent, many women need basic household items--sheets, blankets, pillows, towels, the paraphernalia of daily living. Often, Hestia House residents arrive at the shelter after being evicted from their homes, forced to leave whole households behind. Some are lucky and put their belongings into storage before they get to the point of eviction, but most women at Hestia House own little or nothing. A homeless woman with children, even one enjoying the full benefits of social service programs, needs all the help she can get.

Consider these numbers:

* A woman with one child receives $490 a month through AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children). (With two children, it goes up around $40.)

* In a free shelter such as Hestia House, a woman will save about $400 a month, which gives her $800 by the time she leaves.

* Fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles in 1992 was $737.

* The wait to qualify for Section 8 housing (where rents are reduced by Federal subsidy) can take two or three years.

* The waiting list for Housing Certificates, which subsidize the amount of rent exceeding one-third of the applicant's income, is in the tens of thousands.

These are some of the reasons why goods collected for Hestia House at Neighborhood Church, Throop Church, the YWCA and a revolving assortment of Pasadena service clubs are used not for women in residence at the shelter but for Hestia House graduates. Stored in a garage behind the house in what is called "the food pantry," the non-perishable items are available to the women any time there's a staff person present to open the doors. This is different from most other food distribution centers, which give food only at intervals of one to four weeks--never enough to get most families through the month. And there's usually little choice--the food is normally pre-bagged for recipients. At Hestia House, however, the women can select their own food from whatever's in stock.

"It's one of the few food charities that treats women as peers, as capable of selecting the right food for their family," says shelter director Sylvia Hines. Another virtue of this pantry is that it often contains food that children recognize and like: chicken noodle soup, Spaghetti-O's, cookies. In addition, the pantry contains many household items that food stamps don't cover: dish soap, toiletries, brooms, mops, blankets and other household necessities. Presently, the pantry serves about 50 women a month.

The Hestia House collection shelves at Neighborhood Church were the brainchild of a woman named Helen Brown, a representative of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. Brown was looking for a way that children could help other children. Working with Neighborhood's religious education program and Hestia House director Hines, Brown had the shelves built, then exhorted the congregation to fill them. Soon, filling the shelves wasn't enough; now, Neighborhood has a program in which church members sponsor Hestia House families during their transition into permanent housing.

All told, the Hestia House food pantry may be a modest enterprise--it's limited to a specific population and relies mainly on the generosity of just two churches. Yet according to Hines and co-director Carole Mickens, the cans of soup and boxes of crackers and tubes of toothpaste hauled to church on Sunday have time and time again made the difference between a family staying in their home or returning to the streets.

Hestia House Food Pantry donations may be made at the Pasadena YWCA, 78 N. Marengo St., Pasadena. Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mark donations clearly for Hestia House.

Needed: non-perishable food items (especially kid-friendly food), women's and children's clothing, toiletries, cosmetics, children's books, new toys.

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