Homeless Huddle Against Arctic Chill at Emergency Shelters

Times Staff Writers

San Diego County's homeless headed for hastily prepared emergency shelters Saturday night as an Arctic air mass chilled the county but failed to produce the crisis anticipated by city and county officials.

With temperatures expected to drop to 45 degrees downtown and the low 30s in inland valleys Saturday night, emergency teams set up temporary shelters at Balboa Park's Municipal Gymnasium and the student union at Palomar College in San Marcos. The St. Vincent de Paul Joan Kroc Center also expanded its 300-bed capacity by adding 130 cots in large common areas.

"I think it's a beautiful thing," said 29-year-old Tony Justice, one of the first men to occupy a cot in the cavernous Municipal Gymnasium, where California Conservation Corps volunteers had set up 150 cots and stored an additional 160.

"I believe if the rest of the people see this is what's going on, they'd be up here too," Justice said.

87-Year-Old Left Care Home

Meanwhile, time and temperatures appeared to be working against a senile 87-year-old man who wandered away from an East San Diego board and care home where he had been placed by his family Monday.

Thomas Tobin left the home in the 3000 block of 45th street--wearing only blue pajamas--between 11 p.m. Friday, when he was last seen in his room, and 6 a.m. Saturday, when a worker found the room empty and a window open, police said.

Police with dogs searched an adjacent canyon but found no trace of the diminutive Tobin, whom doctors described as confused and unaware of his surroundings. An all-day canvass of a wide swath of the city's east side by CB-radio-equipped volunteers in cars failed to produce a sighting, Sgt. Steve Hinton said. The search was called off at nightfall.

Tobin's granddaughter, Sandy Fernandez, said workers at the board and care home had taken her grandfather's clothes away because he had been rattling his locked closet in an attempt to get them and leave the facility.

"He was so mixed up. He'd say, 'You guys have got me in prison, you've got me in jail.' He was having a hard time adjusting," said Fernandez, who came to San Diego from her home in Seattle to help her mother place Tobin in the home.

Asked whether Tobin could survive the night, Hinton said, "I have no idea. I would like to hope that someone picked him up as a street person."

Because of the cold, street people were being informed Saturday night that food and shelter would be available at the Balboa Park gym.

Acting under a first-ever housing emergency declared by San Diego City Manager John Lockwood Friday afternoon--when Saturday-night temperatures were expected to dive to 35 degrees--police and human service workers put out the word to the county's estimated 5,000 homeless. The county government apparently did not declare an emergency, city workers said.

Two vans circled five downtown sites picking up those who wanted to take advantage of the offer, and Mayor Maureen O'Connor toured the streets in a police cruiser urging the homeless to head for the gymnasium.

"We don't want anyone sleeping outside, period," the Rev. Joe Carroll, head of the St. Vincent de Paul center, said Saturday afternoon. "The idea is to get them inside in a warm environment, because (the temperature) is health-threatening."

As rain started to fall shortly after 9 p.m., about 50 people were inside the gymnasium or standing outside where a Salvation Army truck served hot coffee, hot chocolate, fruit punch and ham and cheese sandwiches. Bill Wolf, coordinator of the city's Office of Emergency Management, said the center expected about 150 people by night's end.

At the St. Vincent de Paul center, about 10 people had come inside by 8 p.m., Carroll said. Twenty others were camped outside on the street in their traditional night spots, he said.

"They don't want to come in. It's not cold enough yet," he said.

No information could be obtained about the Palomar College shelter, which took in North County's homeless Friday night. Saturday, police and feeding sites for the homeless were distributing free passes for North County Transit buses that would take the homeless to the San Marcos shelter.

Even Colder Tonight

Officials expected larger crowds tonight, when overnight temperatures are expected to reach 38 degrees downtown and 20 degrees in inland valleys. Emergency workers also speculated that word of the shelter availability would spread among the homeless this morning at mass feeding sites.

Nevertheless, the effort was declared a success by Wolf because the seat-of-the-pants effort was quickly pulled together by volunteers who went to work at 6 a.m. Saturday after word of the unexpectedly cold weather reached city officials.

"So far we're doing great, considering we're winging it," Wolf said. In addition to setting up separate men's and women's sections in the gym with cots donated by the St. Vincent de Paul center and the Red Cross, volunteers had established a checkpoint to screen incoming homeless for alcohol, drugs and weapons.

The Salvation Army truck was prepared to feed more than the gym's capacity of 350 people, and the city-sponsored van had begun its rounds by early Saturday night.

'City Cares About Image'

"The city doesn't have any responsibility. It's the county's responsibility," noted Arthur Stillwell, business manager for the Salvation Army. "But the city cares about its image and it doesn't want to be seen as a callous city. So our hats are off to the mayor and the others who made the decision (to open the shelter)."

The effort was not lost on homeless people like Alfredo Ferdinando and Lisa Rusgrove, who have spent the last three months sleeping in a church courtyard opposite Balboa Park on 6th Avenue.

"I think it's real nice," Ferdinando said. "It gets cold out here. We have a couple of our own blankets, but that doesn't help. Us not being married, it's hard to get into any of the shelters."

The cold "is getting to where you can't hardly stand it," Ferdinando added. "If it keeps up, we would probably find an abandoned house or an abandoned building (to sleep in)."

Avocado and citrus growers survived Friday night's chilly temperatures without much damage to their crops as temperatures dipped to 44 degrees in El Cajon, 48 degrees in Escondido and 54 degrees at Lindbergh Field.

Little Damage Friday Night

"Several of our biologists went out to various orchards Saturday to talk to growers about any frost damage thus far. We haven't had any complaints yet," said Kathleen Thuner, the county's agricultural commissioner.

But growers were still working to protect crops as a countywide agricultural frost warning declared Friday by the National Weather Service remained in effect.

Overnight lows tonight should pose the worst threat to crops, according to National Weather Service forecaster Frank Perdue, as temperatures are expected to drop into the 20s.

"Growers are preparing for the worst frost damage to occur Sunday night," said Vince Lazaneo, a farm adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension.

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