A California program aids the 'forgotten' homeless

Safe Haven, a residence in Santa Monica, takes in those who have been on the streets more than a year and have a disability and helps put them in permanent housing.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Checkmate: When he was homeless, Timothy Caldwell used to challenge people to a chess match to pay for food. Now he lives at Safe Haven (right), a shelter in Santa Monica, and is looking to get his own apartment. When he wins at chess these days, he gives the money to others without homes.
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    Safe Haven, a shelter in Santa Monica, Calif.
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No sooner have I tucked my king behind the safety of three pawns than self-styled chess master Timothy Caldwell attacks with his bishop. He has invited me to do battle with him in the softening rays of a southern California afternoon, on the exquisitely designed patio of his home.

Mr. Caldwell's brown eyes tend to avoid direct gazes, a shyness that seems born of involuntary impulse. Nevertheless, he is unceasingly kind, even as he ruthlessly dispatches me in just four more moves.

With a residence just a couple miles from the beach in one of the nation's most desirable locales, Caldwell would seem to have it all. There is just one thing that sets him apart from his neighbors: He has spent most of the past decade homeless.

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Caldwell and 24 other men and women now live in a place called Safe Haven, a 25-bed residence in an enviable new building run by a local nonprofit group. Their snug quarters is part of a growing nationwide effort to deal with what has been one of the country's most intractable urban problems – the "chronically homeless."

Officially, this means anyone who has lived on the streets for at least a year and has a disability. In practice, it often means people who have slept under bridges or on park benches for as long as 20 years, have several disabilities, and are the most difficult for social agencies to reach, usually because they suffer from mental illness.

For society, this group has turned out to be costly: Recent studies indicate that the chronically homeless consume $35,000 to $150,000 a year per person in medical and psychological services, as well as in the time of police, courts, and jails. Housing them, even with substantial support services, costs a fraction of that – from $13,000 to $25,000 annually, according to experts.

Thus, many federal and local initiatives such as Safe Haven have focused on getting them off the street and into a home – with considerable success: In 2006, for the first time, federal statistics show that the number of chronically homeless in the US dropped from the year before (175,000 to 155,000). "These are encouraging signs," says Paul Koegel, an expert on the homeless at the Rand Corp., a think tank here. "It is very, very different from what happened in the two decades prior to this."

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Caldwell hopes to add himself to those permanently housed in 2008. But his journey in getting here has been tenuous. He describes his story as being "like the Hobbit series – strange monsters and characters the whole way."

Caldwell's descent into homelessness was a logical path that began when he walked off his job in customer service after a series of disputes with management. It continued as he ran out of money and moved into his car while looking for work. A few months later, police towed his vehicle, and he began a life on the streets. At first, he panhandled to get money for food. Then he turned to chess, setting up shop on the Venice Beach boardwalk.

"Every week, I'd scrounge two chairs and a table from the alleys of Venice, and set them up with a sign challenging all comers," he says. If he won, the opponent was expected to make a donation, which Caldwell used to buy food. "Chess was always a lifelong hobby," he says, "I never thought I'd use it to eat."

His life on the streets finally ended in 2004 when an outreach worker invited him to join the soon-to-be-established Safe Haven.

Caldwell had reservations. He wasn't aware of having any mental disability, which was a qualification. And he didn't want to sleep inside, since ceilings and walls made him feel closed-in. Safe Haven struck an accord with Caldwell: He agreed to a mental-health evaluation and was allowed to sleep outdoors in the parking lot. Caldwell slept there for two years. It was only when the new building opened that he began spending nights inside.

Caldwell's new residence looks like a postmodern home in Beverly Hills. It features the detailed flourishes and pleasing contours of something designed by a careful architect. Safe Haven is located in what is technically an industrial area, but within two blocks of an exclusive private school, pricey high-rise office buildings, and a renowned art studio complex.

The residence is run by OPCC, a nonprofit that has long worked with people on the street. Under the program, the group takes in the chronically homeless with no preconditions – they don't have to be stable. Plus, they are allowed to stay at Safe Haven as long as they need.

The residence is intended to be transitional – the goal is for participants to find their own permanent housing. They are offered a variety of counseling and other services during their stay to help get them back on their feet. Even with all the support, the path to a permanent home can be circuitous. OPCC officials say it usually takes months or even years before residents are ready to venture out on their own.

"They have to go through different levels of relearning, starting with basics like hygiene, laundry, how to use a microwave on up to how to live in a community and manage money," says Lou Anne White, Safe Haven's project director.

The program has drawn a wide range of people, all of whom have their own tale of hardship and, increasingly, hope. Ruth exudes the erudition and casually rumpled appearance of a senior librarian. She also struggles with mental illness. She became homeless when her marriage broke up and she returned from living overseas.

Ferenc Csicseri, a Hungarian immigrant who suffers from depression, became addicted to methamphetamines and lost his residence in 1999. Today the Safe Haven alumnus has his own apartment and serves as a mentor for others moving into permanent housing. Sidney Vann got his first apartment in nearly a decade after Christmas.

In all, 13 people have moved into permanent housing since the program's inception three years ago. "For people who have lived on the streets and don't have hope any more, it says it can happen," says Ms. White.

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Caldwell has made a lot of progress, too, even though he hasn't moved into his own place yet. He has become a dynamic force within Safe Haven, carving out a role as an innovator and problem-solver.

During his three years with the program, he has cofounded a self-governance committee, contributed to a Safe Haven blog, stood with colleagues as they went to court, and assisted with fundraisers.

He has completed many of the "life skills" seminars that Safe Haven offers, such as cooking, money management, and how to find housing. He seems well on the way to having his life back together, and yet, not even the next step is a sure thing.

Part of him remains tempted to return to life on the streets. He cannot find the words to explain this, but he continues to have his money managed by an outside agency. He worries that if he has too much in his pocket, he might give in to some vice.

On occasion, he still takes his chessboard to Venice beach. But these days, he doesn't use any money he makes from the spontaneous encounters to buy food. He gives it to other homeless people.

"I just like to help others," he says with the same gentle but definitive tone with which he intones "checkmate."

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