Picture yourself as an impoverished street person, whose grip on reality is already a bit frayed. Suddenly, as you sit on the curb--wondering how to still that rumbling in your stomach--a metallic blue Mercedes with vanity plates pulls up, and a blond lady in designer jeans gets out to offer a sandwich and a pair of socks.
It is not a mirage, but rather an offbeat personal campaign to help the homeless by E. J. Peaker, an actress from Encino.
There are homeless people walking around in designer shoes, footwear that Peaker got from a television producer-friend, and many more wearing underwear that used to belong to her husband.
Unlike shelters and soup kitchens that serve those who come for help, Peaker and her helpers, when she can find them, roam the streets and parks with food and clothing in search of people in need.
On Saturday, Peaker and a small caravan of fellow volunteers rolled into the parking lot of an Encino supermarket to restock a young woman who has lived there in her car for seven months.
Next stop was Los Encinos State Historical Park, where they left sandwiches to be distributed in the morning, when street people go to the park bathrooms to wash.
Kept Work Secret
Peaker, who said she has been at this for three years, at first kept the work secret from her husband so he would not worry about her running into someone truly deranged.
She calls her campaign, and the people she helps, "E. J.'s Gems." In fact, she is writing a book to be called "E. J.'s Gems: My People of the Street."
To some, this might sound a bit possessive and self-aggrandizing, and even condescending. But not to Peaker.
"I found them and I help them, and they feel better about themselves," she said. Moreover, the souls of the street people "are like precious gemstones," she said.
Encino is not exactly the homeless capital of Los Angeles, but Peaker said some homeless are drawn to the community by the relative safety of its streets. Although she does not know how many homeless there are in Encino, Peaker said she has come to know or at least recognize 30 or more in the past few months.
Peaker's efforts have been endorsed by Homeowners of Encino, of which she is a board member, according to Gerald Silver, the group's president. "So often we're perceived as being against things," Silver said.
But "we're not just interested in protecting the elite interests," Silver said. "We're interested in dealing with a broad spectrum of community problems."
On Saturday morning, Peaker organized a combina tion homeless tour and food drive that drew 10 people to her fashionable home.
One friend who came was Patch MacKenzie, a television and movie actress who lives in Bel-Air and sometimes distributes food and clothing along Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. "I always feel that, there but for the grace of God, go I," MacKenzie said.
Before loading up the cars, Peaker presented the group a few practical tips and some personal philosophy.
"E. J.'s Gems goes out on the street and seeks out what I call A, the nouveau poor" and "B, the misfits," Peaker said.
Compared to the rewards of helping these people, "what we give them is nothing," Peaker said. And a crowded schedule is no excuse not to help.
"All you have to do is pack one extra sandwich, and on the way to work you learn how to look for these people," Peaker said.
Peanut butter-with-raisin sandwiches are good, she said, and should be made with wheat bread rather than less nutritious white. Gooey jams and honey are bad, she said, since a sugar high can end in mild depression, and many of these people are depressed enough as it is.
Don't give apples, she said, because they may break already weakened teeth. On the other hand, bananas are good, and are loaded with potassium.
Keep Clothing Available
Keep used clothing in the trunk of the car to give away, Peaker advised.
Underwear is especially nice. "They love a change of underwear. That is their joy," she said. Tube socks are welcome, too, because street people walk around a lot in holey socks, and get terrible blisters.
Despite desperate circumstances, Peaker said, many street people are too proud to accept gifts from strangers and must be tricked into taking help.
The best way to hand out that daily sandwich, for example, is to tell a street person you have an extra sandwich you "don't want . . . to go bad."
"How can they say no?" Peaker asked. It gives "them a feeling they're helping you."
This subtle approach seemed to go out the window at the caravan's first stop--a supermarket parking lot where Debbie, 32, and her two cats have been living in a small Ford.
After piling up raisins, juice, sandwiches and a sweater for one of the cats, everyone gathered around Debbie to pose for a group picture. But Peaker had told Debbie to expect a crowd and she seemed to appreciate the attention.
Later the group stopped at Los Encinos state park, and gave sandwiches to ranger Russ Kimura for the people who wash at the park in the morning.
Met Homeless in Malibu
Kimura said he also met homeless people in his last assignment, at Malibu Lagoon, including an old man known to park workers as Bicycle Joe. Because Joe always spurned offers of food, Kimura said, workers took to hiding the food--but not very well--so Joe would think he'd found a meal himself.
Leaving the park, the group tooled by an empty lot where Marissa, a young woman with a new baby, has been living in a car. The car was there, but Marissa wasn't, and Peaker speculated that she may temporarily have found a roof for herself and the infant.
Peaker said she met Marissa two weeks ago, nine months pregnant with no doctor or arrangement for a hospital delivery.
"I can't tell you the hospitals I called," Peaker said. Finally, Peaker said, she got Marissa into County-USC Medical Center, where the baby was born a week ago.
In approaching street people to offer her help, Peaker acknowledged making some embarrassing mistakes.
She told how she once offered a sandwich to a grimy and forlorn-looking man, who reacted in disbelief. He had merely been trying, without success, to repair his car.
"He says, 'Are you crazy?' " Peaker recalled. " 'I'm waiting here to have my Rolls-Royce tire fixed.' "