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A New Center of Hope for Region's Homeless : Simi Valley: The facility, providing the only service of its kind in the east county, is scheduled to open today after months of false starts.

September 26, 1994|SARA CATANIA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The cold autumn fog that clings to Simi Valley each morning sends chills down Judy Hall's spine.

As summer heat turns to fall wind and drizzle, the homeless advocate shudders with the growing urgency of her much-delayed mission--to provide warm clothing, hot showers and a safe, steady place for people without homes to call their own.

After months of false starts--bad plumbing, faulty wires and cash shortages among them--the Samaritan Center for the homeless in Simi Valley is scheduled to open today.

The center, which will operate Mondays through Fridays from 9 a.m. to noon, will be the only service of its kind in eastern Ventura County. In addition to providing clean clothing and showers, the center will offer free local telephone calls, mail service and counseling.

"When you're on the street, you're always on your guard," said Hall, director of the center. "The Samaritan Center will give people a place to relax for a little while. I think that could make all the difference in the world."

Although Hall plans to open the site today, there are plenty of things that could still go wrong.

"We are working with donated goods, donated time and some very old buildings," Hall cautioned. "We don't want to get our hopes up too much."

Still, Hall cannot hide her enthusiasm. While showing a visitor a just-laid sidewalk, she clapped her hands with glee and danced a quick jig around the wet concrete.

"This is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful," she sang. "I can't tell you what we went through to get this sidewalk put in."

For some supporters of the center, the opening is long overdue.

Brent Brentnall, chairman of the board of directors for the center, began working five years ago to find a property owner willing to rent to the project.

"We would be making some progress with a property owner and then the nearby businesses would complain and that would be the end of that," Brentnall said. "We had complaints from auto rebuilding shops and some other pretty rough outfits. Nobody wanted homeless people around."

Salvation finally came when St. Francis of Assisi Church on Royal Avenue decided to build new facilities and offered to rent the old ones to the Samaritan Center.

"It was a godsend, really," Brentnall said. "For a while there, it looked like we were not going to be able to find a site."

The buildings, however, were dilapidated and required a nearly $100,000 face lift. Brentnall went to work securing funding for the renovation and slowly the money came in.

The city pitched in more than $80,000 in earthquake relief funds. The Times gave $8,000. Rockwell, where Brentnall works as a manager, donated chairs, sofas, file cabinets and other furniture. Other corporations and private donors contributed the rest.

Now, where churchgoers once sought peace of mind in the parish sanctuary, heaps of soiled clothing wait a turn in rumbling washing machines.

And the large, one-room parish hall where the congregation once gathered for bake sales and bingo has been subdivided into a reception area, lounge and storage space stocked with donated supplies from Band-Aids and body cream to toothbrushes and toilet tissue.

The floors are swept, the curtains hung, and the supplies alphabetized and neatly stacked, the work of dozens of volunteers who have donated hundreds of hours to the center even before its opening. All of the volunteers have undergone a training program that requires them to role-play as homeless people.

For volunteer Ron Kunkel, it is not difficult to imagine being homeless.

Kunkel, a Vietnam veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, said he knows many people who have lost their incomes and become homeless.

"These are good people," Kunkel said. "They are you and I. When life was bad to them, they just weren't as fortunate."

Isabelle Landis, whose home is next door to the center, said she jumped at the chance to volunteer.

"I have lived in Simi Valley for 30 years, and I really see the homeless problem getting worse," Landis said. "Whatever we can do to help, we should do."

The services provided at the Samaritan Center are designed to supplement two other programs in Simi Valley for the homeless.

Public Action to Deliver Shelter, or PADS, provides overnight shelter six months a year, and a dinner program operated by volunteers from several area churches runs throughout the year.

The opening of the Samaritan Center comes seven years after the city's first drop-in center shut down.

The first center, operated by the Simi Valley Presbyterian and United Methodist churches from 1984 to 1987, offered similar services for homeless people, said Phil Kochman, who served on the board of directors.

A real estate developer allowed the center to stay rent-free in an office building on the east end of Los Angeles Avenue. When the property was sold, the new owner kicked Kochman's group out and razed the building.

"They still haven't done anything with it (the property)," Kochman said. "Think of all the people we could have been helping, and it's just an empty lot."

Hall hopes that the Samaritan Center will pick up where Kochman's group left off.

"A cup of coffee and a shower might not seem like a lot to you and me," Hall said. "But I think it can bring people a little bit of hope to get them on the right track."

FYI

The Samaritan Center for the homeless in Simi Valley needs volunteers and donations of disposable razors, toilet paper, coffee and men's underwear and socks. For more information, call the center at 579-9166.

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