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Homeless find hope at closed California bases

In what used to be a vacant lot across from the “base gym” on the former McClellan Air Force Base, Calif., is now a model community for helping the homeless. This village of 83 newly-built apartments is a safe haven for 100 recently homeless parents and more than 200 of their children.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Susan Wolbarst)

In what used to be a vacant lot across from the “base gym” on the former McClellan Air Force Base, Calif., is now a model community for helping the homeless. This village of 83 newly-built apartments is a safe haven for 100 recently homeless parents and more than 200 of their children. (U.S. Air Force photo/Susan Wolbarst)

In what used to be a vacant lot across from the “base gym” on the former McClellan Air Force Base, Calif., is now a model community for helping the homeless. This village of 83 newly-built apartments is a safe haven for 100 recently homeless parents and more than 200 of their children.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Susan Wolbarst)

In what used to be a vacant lot across from the “base gym” on the former McClellan Air Force Base, Calif., is now a model community for helping the homeless. This village of 83 newly-built apartments is a safe haven for 100 recently homeless parents and more than 200 of their children. (U.S. Air Force photo/Susan Wolbarst)

SACRAMENTO -- In California, as the temperature drops and the number of homeless people climbs, former Air Force bases around the state offer warm relief. Transitional housing is one of the many ways communities are using property on closed military bases for local benefit.

These villages of hope offer the homeless, out-of-work population a chance to learn new skills while living in clean and safe transitional housing. Riverside County alone had 11,000 homeless people this year and a 13% unemployment rate, according to a May article in The Press Enterprise. In Sacramento, 2,800 homeless were tallied in the January 2009 annual count conducted by Sacramento County officials, amounting to an estimated 4,910 homeless over the course of the year. In October, Sacramento County's unemployment rate was 12.6%.

Path of Life Ministries, a non-profit, offers transitional housing at the former March Air Force Base, now the March Air Reserve Base, in Moreno Valley in Riverside County. POLM officials operate a 54-unit, 142-bed facility serving families and single, chronically homeless women.

"We stay full," says Leonard Jarman, transitional housing manager. "The economy is affecting people who weren't normally considered at risk. The face of homelessness has changed somewhat."

Many living at the remodeled March ARB barracks are working, he said, but can't afford permanent housing. The POLM program, at the base since 2007, helps participants get the skills and training they need to get back on their feet.

In Sacramento, a homeless rehabilitation program called Mather Community Campus has been operating since 1995 in former military barracks at what was Mather AFB until the base closed in 1993. The program offers temporary housing for homeless single adults and families "who believe employment is an essential part of their new life," according to the Sacramento County Department of Human Assistance Web site.

Students live in what are described as "private, roomy" accommodations with bath and showers. Singles eat three meals a day in a community dining room, while families have kitchens for meal preparation. In addition to job training, students can participate in daily support groups emphasizing addiction recovery, parenting skills, budgeting and housing.

The Mather facilities can house 200 singles in 181 apartments and 51 families. In mid-December, 165 singles and 46 families were enrolled. Since opening, Mather officials have served 1,501 singles, and 380 adults and 737 children in families, according to Lucinda Serynek, communications and media officer for the Department of Human Assistance.

Across town at the former McClellan AFB, a non-profit called Cottage Housing Inc. operates Serna Village. The complex of 83 apartments houses 100 recently homeless parents and more than 200 of their children. The program opened in 2002 to provide transitional housing and life skills training.

Applicants must be sober for at least six months before entering the program. At least one adult in the family must have a disability, including a history of drug or alcohol abuse, a physical disability, a diagnosed mental health problem, or a history of domestic violence. The person also must meet the Department of Housing and Urban Development definition of homelessness, which is: an individual who lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence or lives in a supervised temporary shelter or someone who sleeps in a place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings. Applicants must be referred by another community agency. Participants must perform volunteer work.

Serna participants work with personal development coaches to become self-sufficient. They set personal goals such as finishing requirements for a high school diploma or getting a first job. Various programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings are offered regularly, as are numerous classes including acupuncture, yoga, nutritious cooking, parenting and writing. Children can take part in various clubs and a mentoring program.

Officials with the Air Force Real Property Agency, responsible for buying, selling and managing Air Force property worldwide, support programs such as these by completing their Base Realignment and Closure mission. Early in the BRAC process, AFRPA specialists make sure the needs of the homeless are considered. The Homeless Assistance Act requires communities to balance their needs for economic redevelopment and public benefit with the needs of homeless individuals and families in the vicinity of the installation.