Concerns valid about the shelter

February 14, 2009

A number of Burbank residents are apparently confused about what’s going on at the city’s winter homeless shelter. And they have good reason.

For the last few months, the city has gotten mixed messages from Union Rescue Mission officials over whether the shelter at the National Guard Armory allows walk-in visitors or takes homeless residents strictly by bus, and over how carefully the mission screens tenants on their way in. Carrie Gatlin, the mission’s vice president who oversees the Burbank shelter, said in October that the shelter took a small amount of walk-ins. But in November, mission Director Andy Bales said the shelter does not operate a walk-in program.

Even more troubling was Gatlin’s claim, at the Oct. 28 council meeting, that the shelter “is safer than public transportation, where you could be sitting next to a sex offender.” This month, the Burbank Police Department discovered that at least four sex offenders have stayed in the shelter this winter, and Gatlin, when questioned by the council Tuesday, replied that the mission did not ask prospective residents whether they are sex offenders.


All of this sounded like a breakdown in communication — and Bales, when we contacted him this week, admitted as much. He said he misspoke in November when he claimed the shelter took only bused-in tenants, and he clarified that while the shelter has a screening process for sex offenders, it plans to strengthen it after the recent revelations.

In the past, Bales said, the mission kept tabs on who was staying at the armory by checking the Megan’s Law website — which provides information on registered sex offenders — and moved offenders out of the shelter if it discovered them living there. Of the four sex offenders known to have stayed at the shelter this winter, he said, three were moved out almost instantly, while a fourth took a few days to be discovered because he hadn’t registered on the site yet.

The mission, though, plans to follow the council’s advice and ask prospective tenants if they are registered sex offenders. Bales acknowledged that the tactic wouldn’t keep out liars, but it might prevent a few honest offenders from moving in.

So be it. After the discoveries of recent weeks, the residents who have packed City Council meetings to voice their concerns about the safety of a shelter have little reason to feel more assured now. But while we implore the mission’s leaders to tighten their screening process — and to be more consistent with their messages to the public — we stand by our belief that the shelter is a necessary service for the community’s least fortunate residents.

Homelessness, in this hard economic time, is not merely the problem of those who lack jobs. A number of the people staying at the Burbank armory are working full time, Bales said, and coming to the shelter on their own because their shift ends too late for the bus.

Let’s hope the shelter’s recent problems prove to be a momentary setback, and that the mission will continue to provide a break for those who most deserve it.

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