HOMELESS ON THE RANGE

GOP leaders want local governments to run social programs and charities to assume more of the burden. Neither idea is working in Kingman, where no good deed goes unpunished.

An overloaded camper stumbled off Interstate 40. Furniture and other items were piled inside and on top, along with five kids and their parents and their dogs and grandma and gramps besides.

The vehicle coughed its way onto historic Route 66 in Kingman after a journey that had begun in east Texas. The odds of the truck surviving the desert trek to Los Angeles seemed slim.

The family was directed to Father Lawrence Falance, a Ukrainian Orthodox Catholic priest whose church is known to help needy travelers.

The sight on the doorstep bewildered Falance and his wife, Fawnda, despite their experience with these things. "All they needed was Granny's chair up there," Fawnda Falance says, remembering the Clampetts of The Beverly Hillbillies fame.

Falance put them up for the night in the rectory and chapel of St.Theresa's, the pintsize church he oversees in a residential area of central Kingman, a block from his home.

Because Kingman, a booming area of 16,800, has no place for the homeless, Falance's church sanctuary is well-known. When the domestic violence shelter is full, workers send him the overflow. When people released from jail have nowhere to go, someone's already given them Falance's phone number. When cops find people sleeping in cars or in alleyways, they point the way to St. Theresa's.

Far and away the bulk of those who come to Falance are desperate sojourners like the family in the camper. In northwest Arizona, all roads lead to Kingman--Highway 68, Interstate 40, U.S. 93 and historic Route66. It is 30 miles east to Bullhead City and Laughlin, Nevada, and another 35 miles southwest to Needles, California. The area is home to about 90,000 people, and yet there is not one place officially designed to offer shelter to those without homes.

Which makes Falance a Samaritan or a renegade, depending on whom you ask. For several years, the diminutive former deputy sheriff has been trying to find a permanent space for Prodigal House, a shelter that would offer better accommodations than the cots and lumpy mattresses of St. Theresa's.

But, like those in many places in rural America frightened by visions of stereotypical skid-row bums and petty thieves, Kingman's city fathers have not dealt easily with the idea of homelessness in their front yard.

Kingman Police Chief Carroll Brown once wrote a memo to his staff saying that most homeless people "choose that lifestyle." City officials recently passed a no-camping ordinance pushed by downtown merchants troubled by riffraff wandering the streets and petty crimes they attribute to it.

Most area residents seem to agree with Penny Bonner of the Bullhead City/Laughlin-area United Way, who says: "Father Falance is the closest thing to a shelter we have. He truly does God's work. He epitomizes for me what someone in the church should be."

For Kingman and Mohave County officials, he apparently epitomizes a scofflaw. Falance's operation has been booted out of or denied several sites for various reasons. As a man with a mission, he places the blame at the feet of Kingman's elite and the local officials who keep upsetting his plans with their codes and ordinances.

Looming on the horizon are major cuts in welfare programs--cuts that congressional leaders expect churches and privately funded charities to replace. And, as more people with scant resources hit the highways looking for better prospects, communities like Kingman are reporting greater numbers of "off the interstate" homeless.

And, like Kingman, many places are not inclined to welcome them.
Falance's travails are not unprecedented. Since the Dust Bowl, when legions of Okies crept along Route 66 toward the California promised land, Kingman has had a history of denying travelers room at the inn. More recently, in 1979, a minister tried to open a shelter for marooned travelers. The city council shut down the program in a battle over zoning regulations.

Sixteen years later, Kingman still has no homeless shelter. This time around, what it does have is Father Lawrence Falance.

The Republican Contract With America--while slashing government-assistance programs and delegating more authority to local governments--calls for churches and the private sector to lead the fight against social ills such as homelessness.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich has suggested that every church and synagogue across the land take in one homeless person for six months. "I believe in a social safety net," Gingrich says. "But I think it's better done by churches and by synagogues and by volunteers."

Michael Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless says that's unrealistic. "What [Gingrich] doesn't realize is that the majority of work being done is by the private sector," he says. "Churches are already involved. There is no way that the private charity system is going to be able to respond to any increasing needs. That's simply not going to happen."

Nationwide, conservative estimates place the number of homeless at about one million, a figure that does not wholly include rising numbers of rural homeless, who often elude definition. And more people are living closer to the edge. In 1992, the U.S. Census Bureau listed almost 37 million Americans as poor, or 14.5percent of the population. Three years earlier, the figure was 12.8percent.

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