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Party Helps Brighten the Day for Homeless at St. Vincent de Paul Center

Times Staff Writer

The Day After the Summer Solstice Party began Saturday about 1:30 p.m., more or less, when the guests were enticed to their tables by chords from an electric piano.

Host Kay Campion eyed the people with appreciation. Children stirred throughout the room in the downtown complex of the St. Vincent de Paul Center, reaching for balloons and digging into yellow Styrofoam bowls of assorted treats.

“You know what they love most about it?” Campion said about the party she was throwing for about 35 homeless guests. “They love to get it together. It’s something they can do that’s successful, that they’re participating in.

“Some people call it empowerment,” she said, flirting with a motive for a moment. “Giving them a power to be successful, to participate.”

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Campion, an aspiring singer and one-time chiropractic assistant from Escondido, decided to host some parties at the homeless shelter after talking to St. Vincent director’s, Father Joe Carroll, last year at a dinner for chiropractors. Wouldn’t it nice, he suggested, if someone feted the poor?

Well, yes. Campion worked hard to make her first bash an impressive one. The St. Patrick’s Day gathering featured a chicken dinner and rock music (she sang to keyboards, guitars and drums). San Diego television programs carried the event live.

A second party on Easter at St. Vincent’s was a bit “softer,” being a Sunday and all. Saturday’s was simply Californian --relaxed, breezy, put together for no better reason than to celebrate the day after summer officially began.

The fare, purchased with $85 donated by a friend, was simple: peanuts, wheat crackers, popcorn, apple juice, soda pop, spring water. St. Vincent’s pitched in with 11 small cakes. Since there was no theme Saturday to speak of, the eclectic was encouraged, and one of the tables stood out with decorations that said “Happy Birthday” to no one in particular.

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St. Vincent resident Linda Gorski got caught up in it all. She was handing out pieces of cake. She, her husband and their four children have been living at the shelter for the past three months since her husband’s company folded.

“Picture this,” she said. “You wake up tomorrow. You have no money. No food. No place to live. So you’re forced to live in a place like this. You eat their food. And you have to live the way they make you live.”

The 168 men, women and children living at the center must be inside the converted El Cortez Hotel by 10 p.m., when the lobby doors are locked. They share three television sets, and they are required to be in their rooms by 11 p.m.

“I don’t think it’s frivolous for someone to come in and say, ‘Put your feet up and relax,’ ” Gorski said about the party. “It’s uplifting. We don’t have cocktails. We don’t have hors d’oeuvres. This is not frivolous.”

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Campion, gifted with a rich, throaty voice, provided the entertainment for the afternoon. She belted out the lyrics of Godspell’s “Day by Day” while a blind man, wearing a brown Stetson hat and sunglasses, listened impassively as he delicately cut his cake.

Sitting two seats away was a thin woman with a black eye. Some men came in T-shirts, their arms providing a diversion because of the dark green tattoos of lizards and skulls. One man wore a long, dangling earring from his left earlobe.

As parties go, this one seemed to be heading for trouble early. Then Campion, ever the mindful host, breathed some life into the gathering. With an invisible signal, she prompted a friend playing the piano to strike the familiar introductory chords of “We Are The World.”

Fourteen or so children gathered around the electric piano, swaying in time just like those famous rock stars.

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“Look at their faces,” one woman said, underscoring how much her three children liked the party. The woman, who declined to give her name, said her family has been living at the shelter for three weeks because her husband was laid off from his shipyard job. He has found a new job, however, and they expect to be able to move out soon.

“I imagine to some degree the children feel cooped up. They don’t have their freedom,” she said, adding that since school was out, many of the children play on a small patch of concrete outside of the St. Vincent lobby.

Her 10-year-old daughter, wearing a simple sun dress, bounced around the table with energy, running for a handful of colorful napkins when younger brother slapped over a cup of cola. The girl said the party “brightens my day.”

But it was a mixed pleasure, she explained. Living at the St. Vincent center is tough. The girl attends the O’Farrell Creative and Performing Arts School and she has some wealthier friends who don’t know where she is living.

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“I’m nervous that they’re going to find out,” she confided.

“I have friends that are rich. They help Goodwill, they give stuff to Goodwill. Their parents give to Goodwill. It’s like they’re helping me, they’re giving it to me.

“Maybe I might go there (Goodwill) and buy some stuff,” said the girl, twisting her hands self-consciously. “Maybe some of the things I buy there will be from them. I feel strange and stuff.”

Expertly, Campion squeezed the last bit of conviviality from the crowd with a second rendition of “We Are The World.” Then, gracefully, she stood with cup in hand as the Day After The Summer Solstice Party came to an end.

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Some of her guests went back to their rooms, while others walked into the sunlight and found a place to sit outside, where a short but passionate shouting match flared between a young man and his crying, pregnant wife.

Minutes later, a young man with a bare chest walked to the lobby to talk quietly with a St. Vincent’s employee before placing several paper bags full of clothes on the check-in desk.

Another potential guest for the next Campion party had just checked in.


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