The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1996, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Thursday, October 17, 1996            TAG: 9610170324
SECTION: LOCAL                   PAGE: B1   EDITION: FINAL 
DATELINE: NORFOLK                           LENGTH:  182 lines


Four mornings a week, at 8 o'clock, volunteer Johnnie Williams lopes into the St. Columba Ecumenical Ministries' drop-in center for the homeless and heads for the 80-cup coffee maker.

He's already done all the preliminaries the previous afternoon - inserted the coffee filter, loaded the grinds and poured in the water.

``All I have to do is plug it in,'' says Williams, a 75-year-old retired cook and restaurant owner. ``So when they get here at 9 o'clock, the coffee is ready for them.''

The ``they'' are dozens of homeless people - mostly single men - who go to St. Columba for coffee, sandwiches, showers and other free services. The nonprofit agency provides one of the area's few drop-in centers for the homeless.

``Just the basic needs,'' said Alice Taylor, director of St. Columba ministries. ``Shower, washer and dryer, coffee, sandwiches, telephone. We take all these things for granted.

``But if you're on the street, you don't have a telephone for calling about jobs and a way to get messages back to you. . . . If you're on the street, where do you go to get yourself looking presentable to look for a job?''

The St. Columba drop-in center, which got its start in the mid-1970s, has been operating in a former post office at 2114 Lafayette Blvd. for about a year and a half.

But as it prepares to host an open house Sunday, St. Columba finds itself at an ``important juncture.''

Not only is St. Columba facing its perennial budget crunch, its leaders also believe the numbers of single homeless men and women are growing - and so are their needs.

Taylor said St. Columba served 143 men and women from July through September. There were 97 the previous three months, she said.

Others in the social-services field say the increase could be the result of warm weather and more word getting out about St. Columba's services.

But Taylor and the others do agree on several long-term trends, such as the decline in jobs for unskilled and semi-skilled workers and the reduction in governmental supports, including welfare and food stamps.

Among the hardest hit, they say, will be homeless people over age 40, because employers are apt to choose younger men and women for unskilled laborer jobs.

``One of the things we're noticing is that while unemployment has dropped, the number of people with food stamps has risen,'' said Claudia Gooch of the Planning Council, a regional nonprofit social-service research and development agency. ``So the jobs they're getting are not lifting them out of poverty, or there are certain populations not being reached by the upturn in the economy.''

The trends could hit homeless single adults harder than those living in families. And St. Columba's clients are mostly single men.

``This is a hard population to serve, one that doesn't get the sympathy that families with children get,'' Gooch said.

Also, many of the homeless served by St. Columba have police records, or histories of drug and alcohol abuse - drawbacks when seeking work.

``The population that Alice sees will continue to increase and will be augmented as those federal-assistance programs go away,'' said Suzanne Puryear, Norfolk's human services director. ``That's a challenge for all of us, whether it's Alice Taylor or my case managers. What do you do with people who have those barriers to employment, whether they are people who are still paying the price for bad choices or for bad luck or for learning disabilities?''

St. Columba, Taylor said, wants to improve its ability to help homeless single adults by doing skills and needs assessments, referrals to employers and other services. But the center would need to hire a counselor to provide those services, she said.

Taylor and her assistant, Helmi Ortiz, are the only paid staff at St. Columba. There's also a cadre of volunteers and a network of supporters who raise money or rustle up donations of food, clothing, blankets and other necessities.

Tuesday, Ananias Dowe, a 37-year-old unemployed bricklayer, was the first to enter through St. Columba's back door.

Dowe moved toward a desk manned by volunteer Paul Rouhlac. There, Dowe signed up for a shower and use of the laundry.

``Sometimes I stay with friends,'' Dowe said. ``Last night, I stayed in an abandoned building.''

In fact, Dowe said, he slept in an abandoned house in the Park Place neighborhood throughout the three-day Columbus Day weekend.

St. Columba's drop-in center, he said, offers respite from life on the street and help in looking for steady work.

For example, after showering, Dowe scours newspaper help-wanted ads and is able to use the St. Columba telephone to inquire about possible jobs.

Other men and women drift in, some stopping by a rack of donated clothes before picking up their sandwiches. They eat at a large table near the check-in desk.

Some who come, like a 39-year-old man named Walter, share job information with others.

Walter, who like many of the homeless preferred not to give his last name, has been working odd jobs at a local shipyard and thinks the company may be hiring. He passes a phone number to Victor, a 40-year-old who has been coming to St. Columba for about two weeks.

Some, like Gordon, 39, look for things to do to help at St. Columba. Gordon recently repaired the coffee maker and gave haircuts to four other men at the drop-in center.

There are times when volunteer work leads to paying jobs, Taylor said. When St. Columba remodeled the building, some of the contractors hired a few homeless men who had started with ``go-fer'' jobs, she said.

Taylor would like to develop a more systematic way of linking the men and women at St. Columba with employers.

A similar day support center in Virginia Beach, operated by Volunteers of America, has developed into such a place of contact for several businesses seeking workers.

The Virginia Beach program also schedules visits from various city and private social-service agencies, including for drug, alcohol, mental health and battered-spouse counseling, said Deborah Maloney, director of homeless services for the Volunteers program.

``It's essential for people to have somewhere to connect, where you can assist them, whether it's for jobs or resources,'' Maloney said. ``There's a lot of need for building relationships. That can be pivotal to someone wanting to move forward and do well.''

The Volunteers program, temporarily located in the Hilltop area, also arranges transportation for homeless trying to get to work or job interviews. The service has a van and recently received a $1,000 grant from the Virginia Beach Foundation to buy bus tickets.

Homeless drop-in centers, such as St. Columba and the Volunteers program, must be innovative in their services, Taylor said.

Taylor helps the homeless obtain identification cards to help them apply for work. That often requires mailing for birth certificates or other personal records.

St. Columba covers the costs, which Taylor said range from $4 to $15, depending on the state where a person was born. The homeless use the drop-in center as their mailing address.

With its open house on Sunday, St. Columba also hopes to make more friends among its neighbors in Norfolk's Fairmount Park. So far, the response to the program has been mixed.

H.A. ``Butch'' Schupska, a former president of the Fairmount Park Civic League, says there have been complaints about trash near the drop-in center and strangers wandering the neighborhood. But he plans to attend the open house program ``with an open mind'' toward developing a partnership with St. Columba.

Taylor acknowledges that people being served by the drop-in center may have littered on occasion but ``not any more than anyone'' else.

On the other hand, she notes, St. Columba has cleaned and maintained a vacant lot next door, leasing it for a $1 a year from its private owner.

Here, too, Johnnie Williams, the stalwart volunteer, leaves his mark. He's grown a vegetable garden, which he works after St. Columba closes its doors at 3 p.m. ILLUSTRATION: Color photos

LAWRENCE JACKSON/The Virginian-Pilot

Johnnie Williams, a 75-year-old retired cook and restaurant owner,

volunteers four days a week at the homeless center, which provides

free services.

Ananias Dowe, seated at left, and Keith Cameron, seated at right,

have a meal at the St. Columba Ecumenical Ministries' drop-in

center, where Johnnie Williams, standing at center, volunteers.

Dowe, a 37-year-old unemployed bricklayer, has used the center's

telephone to search for jobs.



When: 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Where: 2114 Lafayette Blvd., Norfolk.

Phone: 627-6748.


St. Columba Ecumenical Ministries grew from a program started by

St. Columba Presbyterian Church in the mid-1970s.

St. Columba church served residents of Robin Hood Apartments,

once Norfolk's largest privately owned, low-cost apartment complex.

In the early 1980s, Norfolk bought and demolished the community,

including the church, to make way for Norfolk Commerce Park.

The ministries continued, becoming an independent ecumenical

program and chiefly serving as an advocate for evicted tenants and

low-income renters citywide.

The agency still helps low-income tenants, but single homeless

adults now make up 70 percent of its work.


LAWRENCE JACKSON/The Virginian-Pilot

Johnnie Williams checks in a client for a shower at the St. Columba

center for the homeless. St. Columba served 143 men and women in

July through September, compared with 97 in the previous three