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Will the Homeless Be Left Out in the Cold?

Poverty: County officials hope to change governor's mind about closing armory shelters but are looking for alternatives just in case.

November 02, 1996|SHELBY GRAD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For a decade, three National Guard armories have offered shelter and solace to hundreds of homeless people who might otherwise endure the coldest winter nights on the streets of Orange County.

But the doors to the armories might close for good this spring, to the dismay of county officials and homeless advocates as well as those in need of shelter.

Local officials hope to persuade Gov. Pete Wilson to keep the armories open. But they are also scrambling to find alternative shelter locations in case their lobbying efforts fail.

"The governor has indicated this will be the last year, and that the armories won't be available after that," said Robert E. Wilson, director of the county's Housing and Redevelopment Department. "We are going try to get him to reconsider it. . . . But we are also looking at the feasibility of other options."

The state-owned armories are permitted to house homeless people during the winter under a law that expires in June. Some in the National Guard have balked at the arrangement and have urged the governor not to extend the program indefinitely.

If the armories close, the county might attempt to open new winter shelters in churches, warehouses and perhaps closed school sites.

But some social services experts fear such plans could be stymied by neighborhood opposition.

"Relocating homeless shelters is not an easy task," said Mike Herald, legislative advocate for Housing California who lobbies on behalf of homeless-services organizations. "There tends to be community outcry."

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Advocates said closing the armories would be a disaster for the "hard core" homeless who usually live on the street and seek shelter only during heavy rains or severe cold snaps. This group makes up a small percentage of the estimated 12,000 homeless people in Orange County.

"The armories are lifesavers for them," said Jean Forbath, chairwoman of the Orange County Health Care Council. "These people are really the throwaways of society. There has to be some place for them."

Other nonprofit shelters and housing programs focus on helping families or women, but the armories are among the few places where homeless men--even those suffering from mental health problems--can get help, Forbath said.

The state first opened up armories across California in 1987 as a temporary measure to protect homeless people during extremely cold nights. The program gradually expanded and now offers shelter from Dec. 15 to March 15.

Orange County provides meals, showers and lodging to as many as 250 homeless people per night at two armories in Santa Ana and one in Fullerton. In addition, homeless people can receive job-training information, motel vouchers and veterans services.

The county contracts with the Salvation Army to operate the shelters, which are run on a shoestring budget of $225,000 per year and rely heavily on volunteer help and donated food.

"The armories are filling a gap," said Margie Wakeham, head of Irvine Temporary Housing. "We are increasingly limiting where we allow people to be with camping and sleeping ordinances. When you have people out on the streets during cold conditions, I think it can be a life-threatening situation."

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Wilson has yet to announce the fate of the armory program. Both county officials and homeless advocates across the state vow to heavily lobby state officials to keep the facilities open.

Representatives from the National Guard and other state officials have raised concerns about the program, saying the warehouse-like armories are not designed for lodging and should not be a long-term solution to the problem of homelessness.

Rick Efker, the county's community development manager, said local shelter operators maintain a good relationship with armory officials. The county has agreed not to operate the shelters on days when they are needed for training exercises and other events.

Efker and county Homeless Issues Coordinator Judi Crumly are just beginning to develop an alternative strategy in case the armories are closed. One idea is to open up to a dozen smaller shelters scattered across the county that would provide service to homeless people in their areas.

Officials expressed optimism that they can overcome any neighborhood opposition to the projects. "Residents had the same concerns when we started up the armories," Efker said. "We'll be able to give them a program that has a minimum impact on neighbors."

County supervisors said they support efforts to maintain the homeless shelters.

"My hope is that use of the armories can be extended," said Supervisor Marian Bergeson. "It's a viable resource that provides an option to those simply have no other options."

Supervisor William G. Steiner added that armories should remain open at least until alternative quarters are secured.

"The need is so great," Steiner said. "I don't think people want to see children and families sleeping in doorways."

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