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No Nightmare Seen at the Dream Center

Activists drop their call for an investigation of the facility after finding 'no basis' for hurricane evacuees' complaints.

September 17, 2005|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

Social activists led by homeless advocate Ted Hayes called a news conference Friday to urge authorities to investigate the Dream Center, Los Angeles' largest shelter for Hurricane Katrina evacuees.

But soon after the media gathered, the activists underwent a change of heart.

The turnabout followed their tour of the 14-story former hospital, which is providing shelter to 200 Louisiana residents left homeless by the disaster.

"I know a miracle when I see one," Hayes told reporters in the Dream Center parking lot after visiting with transplanted storm victims. "The Dream Center is doing good work."

"There is no basis to the complaints we've heard," Hayes said. "The horror stories reported to us do not exist.... The mistake, if there was one," he added, "was simply that no one explained the rules here to them before they left New Orleans."

Earlier in the week, Hayes said eight to 10 evacuees alleged that they had been "intimidated by armed security guards," alienated by a "lily white staff," denied food and money, and made to feel as though they were being held prisoner.

"None of that is true," Hayes said Friday. "I think some of these people are still in shock, which is understandable."

The evacuees had also complained that they had been asked to consent to random drug tests and room searches, and a midnight curfew.

Dream Center officials on Friday said that although drugs and alcohol are not permitted at the facility, which also serves as a drug rehabilitation center, none of the evacuees in their care had been tested or searched.

"There are guidelines we all have to abide by, such as not allowing drugs in the building -- but that's the law," said Dream Center spokesman Clint Carlton. "Besides that, some evacuees had tipped us off ... out of concern for their own safety that some people seemed to be using drugs."

In any case, he said, "no one has been tested. And no one will be tested unless we have to."

Some of the evacuees had appeared a day earlier at another media event along with South Los Angeles activists Edna Aliewine and her daughter, Paula.

On Friday, Paula Aliewine insisted that "those people were not lying about the mistreatment they experienced."

But she and her mother also said conditions at the Dream Center were improving.

"Things have taken a turn for the better, and that's what we want," Paula Aliewine said. "But the only reason they are dotting their I's and crossing their Ts now is because some people started making a little noise."

Many evacuees say they're very happy with how they've been treated. Brandon McIntyre, 21, of New Orleans said he was "grateful for the shelter and three meals a day." He added that he's received several job offers and that the center had plenty of resources available for the evacuees.

Evacuees have been given room and board, clothing and $100 a week, plus access to shopping, job fairs, computers, telephones and cable television. Their children are enrolled in public schools. Kaiser Permanente has medical assistance on standby, and many relief agencies have set up on the Dream Center campus.

Still, it's understandable if evacuees are feeling unmoored and in pain, said Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health worker Lorraine Viade, who has been assigned to the Dream Center.

"Everyone here needs more than all of us combined can give -- but starting a new life takes time," Viade said. "If they sound angry and are sounding off about it, well, I would too if I was in their shoes."

Helen Sweeney, a telemarketer from New Orleans, was among the lucky ones.

"The Dream Center is going to move me and my husband into an apartment, rent-free for six months," she said. "My husband is getting free dental care, and we both get free hospital care for 90 days."

Sweeney and her husband felt so embarrassed by the allegations of mistreatment that they apologized Thursday to Dream Center Pastor Matthew Barnett.

"We felt so badly that people from Louisiana were acting like that," she said. "They're just rude and ungrateful."

Times staff writer William Lobdell contributed to this report.

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