‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?’ Union Station Homeless Services Making a Difference

The La Canada Outlook

By Christina Hamlett
The Outlook

The lyrics of the Great Depression’s signature tune, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”, may have been penned 76 years ago. However, its core sentiment that even captains of industry aren’t immune to misfortune is reflected every day on the street corners, alleys, parking lots and meridian strips of a city that defines itself by wealth and beauty.

While Pasadena’s denizens are certainly no exception when it comes to the mix of discomfort and fear that too often overrides empathy, it’s the deliberate avoidance of eye contact with homeless folks that betrays a more uncomfortable truth; specifically, that the line between the “have nots” and the “haves” is a lot thinner than the latter might choose to believe.

In the early 1970s, Pasadena was struggling to revitalize its downtown district – now known as Old Town – as well as address the fate of its poorest residents who were about to be displaced in order to accommodate new construction. Cynthia Foster, assistant executive director of Union Station Homeless Services, said a group of volunteers, under the leadership of Alice Callagan from All Saints Church, began a hospitality center on Union Street in 1973.

“This small storefront provided coffee, sandwiches and companionship to those in need, and was the beginning of Union Station Homeless Services,” Foster said. “A few years later, overnight shelter was added to our services, with the assistance of the First Congregational Church.”

Over time, Union Station began introducing services that went beyond just food and shelter. “Today we operate five non-sectarian programs that help homeless community members become stable and self-sufficient,” Foster said. “Union Station has been fortunate to have many dedicated supporters who are committed to our mission of rebuilding lives and ending homelessness.”

Approximately 75% of its $4 million budget comes from private sources; the balance is from public and government agencies. “Supporting local agencies like Union Station Homeless Services provides a longer-term solution to ending homelessness in our community,” Foster said. “The comprehensive services we provide that assist our clients in becoming stable and self-sufficient include emergency shelter, transitional housing, career development, meal and shower programs, medical and mental health services and case management. More than 70% of donations to Union Station directly support program services. Many donors choose to give to our endowment fund, which will help sustain our agency’s work as long as there is a need for our services.”

Volunteerism, she points out, is a crucial component of Union Station’s longevity. “We have many volunteer opportunities available, including food service for our Community Meals Program at our Adult Center, job search assistance for our Sources Career Development Program, administrative assistance for our Business and Development Departments, advocacy opportunities to educate our community and government leaders, or providing pro-bono professional services such as healthcare, legal assistance or money management,” Foster said. “We also have opportunities available for groups of volunteers to help with our Adopt-A-Meal program in which groups purchase, prepare and serve a hot dinner or sack lunch once a month at one of our facilities. Our website includes more information about volunteering: www.unionstationhs.org. Interested volunteers can contact us at (626) 240-4550 or drop us an email at info@unionstationhs.org.”

Larry Johnson, LCSW, is the director of Program Services and cites that nearly 2,000 homeless community members were served between July 1, 2007, and June 30, 2008. Being able to support themselves and their families is a critical objective of individuals participating in Union Station’s programs. “Many of our residents must work through the issues that led to their homelessness before they’re ready to seek employment,” he said. “They work with our staff and outside resources to address issues such as drug and alcohol addiction and mental health disorders. About two-thirds of our residents are either beginning recovery from an addiction or dealing with a serious mental health disorder; about a third are dealing with both issues. Of the employable residents who participate in our Sources career development program, approximately 60% find employment within 90 days of completing the program.”

Though he has witnessed enough success stories to fill a book, Johnson shares three of his favorites. “‘Wendell’, a frequent resident of Union Station, had a long history of heroin addiction. When he applied for his fourth admission to our Adult Center, the staff was concerned, believing old patterns would be repeated. His case manager, however, had stayed in touch with Wendell through the years and believed this time he might be ready. He persuaded the staff to give Wendell one more chance and arranged for an accelerated intake at Pasadena’s leading drug treatment center. That was 10 years ago. Today Wendell is still clean and sober, has a responsible, well-paying job and is saving his money for a down payment on a home.”

“‘Yvette’ was terrified when first admitted to Union Station’s Adult Center. She was hearing voices that frightened and threatened her. A very religious woman, she thought she might be possessed by demons. Her case manager arranged for a psychiatric evaluation, assuring her she’d be safe at Union Station and no harm would come to her. She responded well to medication and the voices stopped. Because of her age and physical problems, Yvette wasn’t employable, so her case manager arranged for her to get a subsidized housing voucher for disabled homeless persons. Today Yvette takes her medication, sees her psychiatrist regularly and lives in her own apartment in the San Fernando Valley. She keeps in touch and drops by our Adult Center to visit and attend meetings.”

“‘Allan’ had been homeless for more than 10 years because of alcoholism. He was well-educated and had previously held responsible, high-paying jobs. When he came to us, his health was showing the effects of severe alcoholism and he felt defeated. His case manager helped him get health care and admission to a live-in treatment center for alcohol addiction. Allan returned to Union Station after treatment, enrolled in our Sources Career Development Program, and found an entry-level job. Because of his intelligence and newly restored confidence, he was quickly promoted into a supervisory position and then management. He still works with Sources and has been able to arrange for other graduates to be hired by his company.”

Faith in the human spirit, it seems, has worked wonders in turning the darkest reversals of fortune into the chance for a fresh start – a chance that might have been lost forever if there’d been no one to look them in the eye and feel a stir of compassion. The understandable reluctance many people feel toward giving cash to a homeless person can be remedied, Foster explains, by contacting Union Station’s Passageways Intake Center at (626) 403-4888. “Upon request, they’ll provide information cards listing its services, locations and hours, which can be given to homeless community members,” she said.

While men still comprise the majority of homeless individuals, statistics show there’s been a steady rise in women who find themselves in crisis. “In the West San Gabriel Valley, women make up 33% of the homeless population,” Johnson said. “This means that at any time, approximately 300 to 350 women are without permanent housing. Families, most often headed by single women, make up 29% of the homeless.” In response, Union Station opened a 50-bed Family Center in 2003 and expanded its Adult Center in 2008 by adding 20 additional beds for single women. “Both of these centers offer a full range of social services specifically designed to meet the unique needs of families and single women,” Johnson said. “We’re also an active member of the Housing and Homeless Network, a coalition of public and private agencies in Pasadena that coordinate existing services and seek funding to create more affordable and low income housing.”

Pasadena’s rapid growth in the last decade and the notable increase in posh residential developments is something that hasn’t escaped Union Station’s attention. Said Johnson, “The city has attempted to make housing available to its low-income residents through Section 8 and Shelter Plus Care rental subsidies, as well as requiring that new developments have a percentage of affordable units available. The city’s General Plan, which covers the years 2008-2014, contains a housing element that describes the current needs for housing, analyzes the resources for providing it, and offers policies and programs to make the best use of the resources.”

The upcoming holiday season holds no shortage of exciting events to help raise funds for Union Station. “Our annual jazz concert, ‘An Evening for the Station’, will take place Oct. 25 at the L.A. Music Academy in Pasadena,” Foster said. “This year’s event features Carol Welsman, an international jazz singer and pianist, and is hosted by actor and long-time friend of Union Station, Hector Elizondo. Tickets are available by calling (626) 240-4557.”

In addition to the concert, corporate opportunities are available for the annual “Dinners in the Park” on Thanksgiving and Christmas. “These events provide a total of 8,500 meals, served by thousands of community volunteers,” Foster said. “Sponsorship opportunities are also available for our spring 35th Anniversary Celebration.”

Individuals and companies interested in supporting Union Station’s work can contact Victoria Stubrin at (626) 240-4557. “Last but not least, we’re putting together a team for the first-ever Pasadena Marathon on Nov. 16. To participate in the full/half marathon, bike race, 5K run or 3-mile walk, visit www.unionstationhs.org/marathon.html.

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