Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, December 2, 2007: Away From the Cold
Robert Rogers, Staff Writer
SAN BERNARDINO – There is nothing typical about Mike Pierce’s plunge into homelessness.
Just two years ago, Pierce raked in about $50,000 annually flying commercial planes that tailed advertising banners across the sky at some of Southern California’s most exclusive beaches.
Then the owner of the small company he worked for died, and the business went under.
Now Pierce, 46, is unemployed and bedding down in a homeless shelter just north of downtown. He still has the white teeth and clean conversational style of a middle-class professional, but his hair is grayer and his spirit depleted.
“I tell my ex-wife and my (adult) daughters that I’m renting a room,” Pierce said. “I can’t bring myself to admit
A man reads a Bible in the aisle of the Central City Lutheran Mission in San Bernardino on Wednesday. The mission offers food, shelter and the use of a restroom to hundreds of homeless men each winter. (Eric Reed/Staff Photographer)
that I’m in this situation.”
Pierce was one of about 35 men chowing on hearty dinners before showering and spreading blankets over the wood benches and concrete floor of the Central City Lutheran Mission’s worship hall.
The only shelter for men in the county’s largest city, the mission opened its doors with the onset of colder temperatures for the fifth consecutive winter.
According to Mission pastor David Kalke, rising housing costs have forced more people into homelessness. As other sanctuaries in the city became overwhelmed by rising homelessness, they aimed their efforts at women and children only, pushing many men literally into the cold.
According to a San Bernardino County survey conducted in February, the homeless population has risen 39 percent since 2003, to 7,331.
The mission sports a new feature this year – primary-medical care at the same location as the shelter.
The H Street Clinic, a 6,000-plus-square-foot community health project opened by the mission in April, is a mandatory visit for every man who registers for a stay at the shelter. They receive a complete physical, including blood tests for prostate cancer, diabetes and heart conditions. The men will also be able to visit the primary-care facility after the shelter closes for the season in April.
Attendance at the shelter has hovered between 25 and 40 men per night since the opening, said Quibe “Pops” Snow, who came to the mission during his own bout with homelessness years ago and now helps run the shelter.
“It’s sad, but this is the only men’s shelter around here,” Snow said. “We have to do what we can to help folks in need. It’s no crime to be homeless.”
Snow, 66, and his volunteer helpers – on this night a young Cal State San Bernardino international business student named Steffi Lurz – run an orderly program.
Men can check in as early 6:30 p.m., and dinner is served until 7:30 p.m. After that, the men hit the shower, one at a time, for a maximum of 10 minutes.
The mission provides each a hygiene kit with toiletries and a blanket and pillow.
After 9 p.m., it’s lights out in the cozy worship hall, which can hold roughly 100 people.
Breakfast is served the next day at 6:30 a.m., and the men can attend a voluntary Mass at 8 a.m. before departing for the day.
Many come back each night.
The provisions are sparse, but they’re clean and safe, Lurz said.
For Lurz, a German national, working in the depths of poverty has given her a perspective she didn’t have in her native land, where she never saw homelessness up close, she said.
“It has made me more tolerant,” she said of her volunteer work at the mission. “When you see people up close and work with them, the problem of homelessness gets much more complicated.”
The shelter will remain open until April 30.
Last year 425 different men came for assistance, a number the shelter expects to increase this year, according to Kalke.
The shelter is needed more than ever, said mission officials and volunteers.
While the Salvation Army hopes to have a major work and shelter facility built in the city’s south end by next summer, the city currently has far fewer beds than homeless bodies in the streets.
San Bernardino, the county seat and its largest city, has by far the largest homeless population as well, with 1,915 according to a county homeless survey.
Because of the inherent difficulties in tracking people without addresses, the numbers are likely very conservative, Kent Paxton, director of the city’s Office of Community Safety and Violence Prevention, said earlier this month.
Back at the mission, the face of homelessness behind the statistics isn’t easily definable.
The stories are almost uniformly sad, from Pierce’s precipitous fall from middle-class status to Frederick Bennett, who fell into drugs and prison after serving his country as a Marine from 1983 to 1989.
Strikingly young faces as well as hard and grizzled ones alike sit and shovel at their dinner plates.
The ethnicities are mixed, with a nearly even distribution of whites, blacks and Latinos.
Sounds of English and Spanish mingle about the room.
Snow stood by the shower, checking off the time on his clipboard as the scruffy entered and the washed walked away.
“We maintain an attitude of respect here,” he said. “We have to, because out there these men don’t get any (respect).”