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Better Beds Than Dead

Shelter operators say dismal rehabilitation rate pales next to higher mission of saving lives

By Cecily Barnes

Two months ago San Francisco's mayor, Willie Brown, threw up his hands to the doorway sleepers and alley dwellers, admitting he could not solve what has become urban America's most pressing social conundrum. Unlike Brown, homeless care administrators in Santa Clara County haven't given up on the problem, although they readily admit to not have all the answers.

These administrators respond sharply to criticism that their programs are perpetuating the problem. Critics accuse county shelters of filling shopping carts and patching sleeping bags, rather than redirecting this strayed population back into society. Such concessions, critics cry, will only perpetuate the problem. Homeless-care administrators respond to the predicament with a fearfully blunt question: Shall we perpetuate the problem or let them die?

"How many of those people are happy living on the street?" asked Maury Kendall, communications manager for the Emergency Housing Consortium. "Should we then deny emergency shelter and food to these people? I don't think so."

"We certainly don't claim to have the answers to society's ills," said Walt Lundin, president of the Urban Ministry of Palo Alto's board of trustees. "What we are trying to do is our little bit to contribute. I'll acknowledge that we don't have a 100 percent success rate, but we're in there pitching. It's a bum rap is what I'm saying."

And while these programs admit they're not providing the perfect cure, they are aware that problems are often delivered alongside help, and they're working to sidestep such mixed outcomes.

The Palo Alto Urban Ministry Program crafts a "rehabilitation" program for each of its patrons, setting and reviewing weekly goals. The maximum stay is 90 days, and patrons may return for a second 90 days only if employed.

L.E. Boydston, executive director of Urban Ministry of Palo Alto, says about 20 percent of the men who go through his program are successfully placed in jobs and/or permanent housing. This figure is low, Boydston says, because UMPA deals with men who have failed in several other such programs.

"We're the last rung on the ladder for help," Boydston adds. "We're dealing with people who have been homeless for years and have lost all their social skills. If they're two hours late for an appointment, they consider themselves on time."

The EHC provides what they call a "continuum of care." Emergency shelters are just one component of that care, providing immediate refuge to individuals who might otherwise freeze. Offering a transitional housing program, permanent housing and family and youth shelters, the EHC is constructing a San Jose reception center that will consolidate these programs under different parts of the same roof. By shortening the distance between steps A and B, and cutting out the "back on the streets element," EHC officials hope more shelter patrons will step through the program's progressions, rather than out the revolving door.

Critics chastise programs such as the Emergency Housing Consortium's winter armories for indiscriminately (unless they are drunk or violent) providing rovers with a meal and a warm place to sleep. These programs recharge the homeless population for another day on the street, critics claim. But Kendall, from the EHC, defends the armories as a necessary component of homeless assistance in total.

"It is designed to be life-saving shelter to get people off the street into a warm, dry environment where they can get food, a shower and access to social services," said Kendall, who explained that additional programs are offered and available, but they can't be force-fed. "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. There is an element of free will involved. We offer the programs to people. But it will be up to the individuals involved whether they're receptive to those services."

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From the November 21-27, 1996 issue of Metro

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