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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 Frank KosaCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 26, 2008

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.

Frank Kosa

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Santa Monica, Calif.

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.

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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.

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.

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