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Gimme Shelter

After three years on the street, a homeless man rates the service at our local shelters

By Peter McNally

ALL SHELTERS are not created equal, and the transient population knows the score on each and every one.

At the bottom of the social order in the world of homeless shelters is the Cold Weather Shelter Program managed by Emergency Housing Consortium of San Jose. The program operates through three National Guard armories: The San Jose armory is set to open Nov. 26; the Sunnyvale and Gilroy locations are due to open Dec. 2. All three will remain open through mid-March. It is a remarkably efficient and well-run program, with space to feed 650 and sleep 500 men and women per night. The armories offer separate sleeping quarters and bathrooms for men and women.

The program has proven most of the fears of the Not In My Back Yard folks to be grossly unfounded. After several years of experience, crime in the neighborhoods immediately surrounding the armories has not moved up, statistically, an inch. It was one of the great surprises from my 18-month research project to discover, at least with respect to the issue of crime in the streets, the great dichotomy between the public's perception of the homeless man and the reality. I witnessed a total of three physical assaults and heard about only one crime--an infinitesimal percentage, given the numbers of homeless men involved and when compared to the crime which routinely occurs on the streets thoughout the county.

MOVING UP THE SOCIAL scale are two shelter programs operating out of San Jose. The Salvation Army, otherwise known as "Sally" by the homeless men, makes 23 of its 64 beds available to men off the streets every night. "Sally" is the strictest of all shelters. All men must pass a breath analyzer test every night and take a shower before being issued a bunk. There is much to be said in favor of "Sally's" approach to the homeless. But in this limited discussion of homelessness in Santa Clara County, suffice it to say that my main complaint against the program is that, given the vast financial resources of the Salvation Army, their effort seems small and woefully inadequate.

CITYTEAM MINISTRIES shelters about 45 men a night. CityTeam has the cleanest and finest facility of any shelter in Santa Clara County. CityTeam is funded primarily by a network of evangelical churches and, in my opinion, is failing in its mission in almost every respect. CityTeam insists that the men attend a religious sermon lasting between 30 and 50 minutes every night. The homeless men hate this service with a passion. I have met homeless men who, given the choice of staying at CityTeam on a cold, rainy night during the winter or sleeping out on the street, choose the street! CityTeam also has a work program lasting six months, in which the men work either at the shelter or in private industry. In talks with staff and ex-participants of the work program, I gather that no more than 10 percent of the men stay the course. Again, a major reason is the relentless religious pressure put on the men.

Beyond this, the structure of the program makes it practically impossible for the men staying at the shelter to obtain any job, period. Since beds are given out at 5pm every night, in order to obtain one a homeless man has to line up between 3 and 5pm in the patio in front of the shelter. Since most jobs run from 9am to 5pm, Monday through Friday, allowing for time for transportation between the job and the shelter after work, it is impossible to work and stay there. In closing, with such a track record of overwhelming failure, extending over many years, one can only wonder what the leaders of CityTeam actually think they are accomplishing.

AT THE OPPOSITE END of the social spectrum from the National Guard armories' Cold Weather Shelter Program is the most cost-effective and productive shelter program to be found anywhere in California, i.e., the rotating church shelter program. Currently there are four operating in Santa Clara County: Urban Ministry of Palo Alto, Alpha-Omega of Mountain View, Cupertino Community Services and Community Inns of San Jose. The Urban Ministry of Palo Alto is the oldest continuously running church shelter program and, in fact, is the model for all the others. Fortunately, the three succeeding rotating church shelter programs have totally rejected UMPA's operating philosophy, which fails the most fundamental raison d'être for all shelters, i.e., ending homelessness. Whereas success rates of 70 to 80 percent are routinely achieved by the other rotating shelters (where success is defined as getting the men a job and placing them in affordable housing), UMPA can claim no more than a 20 percent success rate. With very little input from the staff, I base this observation on two 90-day stays at UMPA, separated by a one-year interim period.

Urban Ministry's failure to do better is due to an almost total absence of a coherent program to 1) get the men into jobs and 2) provide a detailed manual and have the men sign a "contract" upon entry which sets out their obligations to the program--and their individual rights.

Earlier this year, UMPA asked the Palo Alto City Council for an extra $35,000, in addition to its regular community development block grant, to fund its operations through the end of its fiscal year. According to press reports, this management team had worked its way through a hard-earned surplus of approximately $200,000 down to $9,000 over a two-year period. I would argue that Urban Ministry is a prime example of an institution enabling homeless men to continue to rot away, lost to their families, to society and to themselves.

Of the three successful rotating church shelter programs, Community Inns is the only one operating in a true "continuum of care" environment. As a member of 23-year-old InnVision of San Jose, Community Inns is able to screen potential residents from InnVision's Montgomery Street Inn for homeless men. Montgomery Street Inn houses and feeds about 80 to 300 men off the streets of San Jose nightly. Quite often the man will get a job himself and move over to InnVision's Cecil White Center work program. Here, John Johnson, case manager for Community Inns, is able to observe the men over a period of time and select the 12 to 15 best to bring on board his 90-day work program. The men are introduced to a network of personnel agencies, résumé-writing experts, career counselors, interview skills seminars and, most importantly, to affordable housing financing and openings. The men are required to open bank accounts in order to meet the first month's rent and security deposit requirements of rental units in Santa Clara County.


Anne Gelhaus contributed to this report.

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From the November 21-27, 1996 issue of Metro

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