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California and the West

Homeless Find Good Life on Former Base

Services: Marin County shelter is the nation's first to be built at a decommissioned military facility, founders say.


NOVATO, Calif. — Set amid the bucolic hills and cow pastures that define the landscape of northern Marin County, New Beginnings Homeless Center looks more like a college dormitory than a shelter where people go to wrest new lives from the demons of misfortune.

"This is the top of the line," said Joseph Rodgers, 52, who has been homeless since October because of substance abuse problems. "If you can't get it together here, then there's no together."

Located on Hamilton Field, which was vacated by the Air Force in 1975, New Beginnings is the first shelter for the homeless in the nation to be built on a decommissioned base, founders say.

The $3.2-million shelter opened this month and offers long-term housing for 60 people, along with job training, a computer lab, a health clinic and a kennel. The center's red roof and wheat-colored, clapboard exterior blend in with the half-million-dollar homes in the surrounding hills.

What makes New Beginnings remarkable is the number of area residents who have championed it, said John Wilson-Bugbee, executive director of Homeward Bound, a nonprofit organization that runs New Beginnings.

"Homeless services are kind of a drag in most places but it's not the case here," said Wilson-Bugbee, an activist for the homeless for more than 30 years. "You can't wipe the smile off my face these days. I really could go on and on with examples of how people have really gotten into the spirit of what's going on here at the center."

Elsewhere, efforts to open shelters have been hit with fierce community opposition. But residents of Marin, which boasts the highest per capita income in California, have raised more than half of the construction costs for the center.

Nearby homeowners have donated a basketball hoop and ball to New Beginnings. Schoolchildren mounted a fund-raising campaign to buy the center's residents necessities such as toothpaste, shampoo and towels. Local developers have supplied a bicycle rack and the materials to build a fireplace in the center's living room.

The Marin Community Foundation, an association of area families and businesses with assets of $1.2 billion, donated $900,000 of the center's start-up costs. In addition, the foundation has pledged to pay for one-third of yearly operating costs. Area residents and corporations chipped in an additional $1.3 million.

Despite the county's affluence, Marin has 5,000 homeless people--a number that, at 2% of the population, matches the national rate of homelessness, said area activists.

New Beginnings has been able to rally community support because it tries to offer real solutions to the problem of chronic homelessness, more than just hot meals and beds during winter weather, said Bob Puett, the program director at Homeward Bound, which runs the center. Besides, the shelter had a well-established history in the neighborhood.

In 1993, Puett moved a seasonal shelter for the homeless that he operated during rainy months to Hamilton Field. It was before construction companies started building the surrounding neighborhoods, and the closed base was a sequestered area where homeless people were allowed to set up tents.

In 1996, the shelter moved into a storage warehouse on the base. More than 80 people slept under one roof during winter months and the warehouse became a tangled maze of old mattresses and cots.

Puett had gotten access to the warehouse under the McKinney Act, a federal law that gives nonprofit agencies for the homeless priority when decommissioned land is transferred to civilians. There are a handful of shelters for the homeless operating in abandoned military buildings in California, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

But Homeward Bound wanted to move out of the warehouse and build a facility that offered more than "three hots and a cot," Wilson-Bugbee said. "We were no longer talking about feeding and housing people overnight but providing a year-round facility where we could transition people and get them fully ready for the work force."

The fact that New Beginnings offered homeless people more than temporary shelter made it easier for nearby homeowners to embrace, said Kate Ruehle, who bought a home in nearby South Gate a year ago.

"I have a small daughter, and transients wandering the streets wouldn't be an element we want in the neighborhood," said Ruehle, who rallied local residents behind New Beginnings. "But the center doesn't work that way; the residents at New Beginnings have job training and rules."

Those rules mandate that residents remain free of drugs and alcohol, attend job-training classes and work toward getting a job to save money. They are given as much as six months to "graduate" from the shelter into their own homes.

Marin has one of the most expensive housing markets in California, which raises the question: Can New Beginnings residents afford to strike out on their own after they graduate?

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