Ambitious school for the homeless

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Shuffling past rundown hotels, vacant lots, and warehouses, Cynbad Montgomery could be forgiven for being a little pessimistic.

She's been homeless for several months, living on skid row among those who eke out a meager existence beneath blankets, boxes, and milk crates. Yet the former receptionist is adamantly upbeat. If she had a place to brush up on her reading and computer skills, she says, she could escape the street life.

"I'm already familiar with [Microsoft] Windows, but if I could just learn Excel, I could get back in the job market, no problem," says Ms. Montgomery, who has hopscotched in and out of employment for the past 10 years.

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Now, she'll have an opportunity to do just that. Today, the Los Angeles school district and a leading social-service company are planning to open a school designed to serve 1,000 homeless and low-income people a day. Through it, these students will hook up to the Web, get their own voice mail, and work toward high school equivalency degrees.

It's not the only school in America that's set up to help the needy through education, but it might well be the most ambitious. With its 25-computer lab, six teachers, and five classrooms, officials hope to move 2,000 people off the street each year.

"To ... have a partnership between a bona fide school district and a social-service entity is, we believe, a first nationally," says Gregory Pate, program manager for employment services. "This will ensure that not only do our clients have the necessary job skills, but they know how to apply for employment and put their best foot forward."

Rising from the dust of a gutted warehouse nearly a city block deep, the 22,000-square-foot Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Learning center is believed to be the first venture of such scope to be located so near the people it's supposed to serve.

Location, location, location

Here in Los Angeles, for example, the other adult-education facilities lie far from the 70-block district where 10 percent of Los Angeles County's 85,000 homeless live. Moreover, with the exception of a $10 registration fee, all services here will be free.

"This is a major effort to do more than just aid homeless people in their current plight but to help them break the cycle and become contributing members of society," says John King, president of the Weingart Center Foundation. "We have the firm belief that when you give people an education, it is not something they can lose or have taken away from them. They can improve their own lives."

Most homeless people are not far from being employed, statistics suggest. According to the Interagency Council on Homelessness, 49 percent of homeless adults have worked within the past 30 days. And in L.A. County, which has the second-largest concentration nationally, 76 percent of homeless adults have been employed for some or all of the two years prior to becoming homeless.

For Michael Hall, who lives temporarily in a local mission, the only gap between him and a job is a place to write a decent resume, he says.

"I have wanted to learn how to create a resume for myself and get a job for a long time," says Mr. Hall.

It's a problem he sees all around him. One-quarter of the people in this small downtown area cannot read or write. "There are so many people just like me who will be helped by this, who couldn't find a way out any other way," he says.

The new center will provide evening and morning classes in topics including reading, math, and computer training. There will also be access to telephones, job-preparedness workshops, and employment-counseling services.

That's what has former receptionist Montgomery smiling. "Part of the reason I have been on the streets for several months now is that people who might hire me have no way to contact me unless I continue to walk back and forth to wherever they are," she says. "When you have a county as big as this, that's nearly impossible."

Beyond serving the population of homeless people, the center is also hoping to attract low-wage workers in the nearby garment and produce districts who, in many cases, have limited education and language skills.

"The size and scope of this project in reaching out not just to the homeless but to employees in the area are what separates this idea from others around the country," says Ray Ochoa, principal of Belmont CAS.

It's a tough job

Officials at the center are under no illusion about the challenges ahead. On one side of the facility, separate from classrooms, will be specially trained job counselors and clinical services to help deal with those potential clients who have drug, alcohol, and mental problems.

In addition, the problem of homelessness is not one that's likely to yield to any simple solution. Despite 10 years of economic boom, the ranks of homeless have remained relatively steady, social-service officials say. Roughly 3 percent of the US population were homeless between 1985 and 1990, and in 1994, nearly 600,000 were homeless any given night. The US Conference of Mayors even reported a 9.1 percent annual increase in demand for emergency shelter in cities from 1994 to 1999.

"Anyone who thinks we can eliminate, eradicate, or get rid of homelessness is kidding themselves," says Mr. King.

But that doesn't mean the center can't be successful.

"We feel we can help turn [these problems] around by dealing with the basic problem of these people, which is self-esteem," King says. "When you can't look yourself in the mirror in the morning, the rest of the day is pretty bad. But if you can find an environment that wants to support you rather than tear you down, your odds of going somewhere on your own are greatly improved."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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