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Spending a Night in the Armory : 153 Men, Women and Children Find Beds, Protection From Bitter Cold

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

It is almost midnight. A few cars rumble on down Warner Avenue, but mostly the night is quiet. A tall, rugged-looking man sits cross-legged in front of a gymnasium-shaped building, smoking a cigarette, sipping coffee, watching his breath vaporize in the cold night air.

“I don’t sleep good,” he says. His name is Errol.

“I got a little sleep in there, and I dreamed about a beautiful woman. Maybe I’ll go back in and try to sleep some more. . . . Tomorrow morning, I’m gonna let that hot shower cook the pneumonia right out of me, just like I did today. Man, I haven’t had a hot shower like that in two, maybe three years.”

Inside the old National Guard Armory in Santa Ana, a heater hums and rattles, and a few men snore. Others sit up in their cots and stare blankly across the cavernous room before laying their heads back down.

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There will be 153 of them before this short night is over--the most since Orange County opened the armory on cold nights about two weeks ago.

Seven rows of green cots nearly cover the cold concrete floor of the building. About 30 state and territorial flags hang overhead--"We asked for all 50, but some states just sent pictures of their flags,” says Angel Martinez, one of two burly National Guardsmen on duty.

A sheriff’s deputy is also there to keep the peace--no shelter in Orange County handles this many destitute people in so little space--but there are no incidents. Weapons are checked at the door, and most of the men, women and children there seem appreciative and are happy to get some sleep in a warm place, a hot shower and decent food.

The men shower first, then a guardsman or a county social services worker stands outside the men’s room while the handful of women and children use the facilities.

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“If they hadn’t opened this up, a whole lot of people would be sick,” Errol says. He is right, judging from the coughing inside, and much of the talk that night and the following morning is about the weather: Will it rain? Was there ice on the windshield in the morning? Will the armory be open again if it warms up a little bit?

“This is a godsend,” says Wait A While Norm, stretched out on his cot earlier that night. “We had ice inside the car the last couple of nights. What are we down to now, Richard--24 cents and three-quarters of a tank of gas?”

Richard--Norm’s partner, Richard the Kind, as in a certain “kind of guy,” Norm says--nods in agreement and is also thankful to be in the armory and out of the cold.

“They run a very tight ship here, but it’s not insipid (sic),” Richard says.

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Norm, 57, got his nickname “because that’s what I’m always telling people to do: wait a while, cause they’re always blowing smoke rings (at me).”

He says he is a former industrial engineer who wore three-piece suits and earned $60,000 a year. He is almost dapper: white hair, a neat, bushy mustache, bright-red socks, corduroy jeans and an unwrinkled shirt. There is just enough unkemptness about him that keeps him from looking like the perfect grandfather. Unlike most of those in the shelter that night, Norm can explain succinctly how he got where he is.

“My wife left me three years ago. I went berserk. I turned into an alcoholic. I don’t know why she left me. . . . I don’t drink any more; I sip. But I could sip a half gallon of vodka in one day.”

Norm’s partner is a shakier, grubbier 57 years old, but almost equally verbose.

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“I was an aeronautical engineer,” says Richard, his hands shaking. “But engineers are very facetious, very class-conscious. If you go in and say, ‘I’m dubious about working for your firm, I have serious doubts about your expertise,’ they’ll hire you in a hot flash. But how am I going to get started? Where would I get the money for a suit?”

“C’est la vie,” Norm says.

“C’est la guerre,” Richard says.

On the other side of the room, Teresa Hernandez scolds her son, Jorge, 4, for putting on someone else’s cowboy boots. Another son, Miguel, 9, sits nearby and spoons turkey soup into his mouth from a paper bowl.

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Hernandez, a heavyset woman of 40, speaks little English. Her senses seem dulled; she is slow to react to her children, and her reprimands seem perfunctory.

She gets about $700 a month in relief checks, but the money has run out for December, and she can no longer afford a hotel room, she says.

Her husband has left for Mexico, and she is not sure when or if he is coming back. She is not sure where Miguel goes to school, or what she will do tomorrow. She would like a house or an apartment for her children, but she barely lets herself talk about it.

“You need so much money,” she says in Spanish. “Maybe if my husband comes back, or if my other children (she has two teen-agers) get work.”

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At 9 p.m., the guardsmen shut off the armory lights, and people slowly wind up their quiet conversations. They move off to their small, lightweight cots. Some take their shoes, jackets and shirts off before pulling brown blankets over their tired bodies.

It never really gets quiet. Coughing is almost incessant, and so is the parade of people to the bathroom.

“Half of these guys are alcoholics or hypes,” says Gene, who has gotten up to go outside for a smoke. A slight, black man from Boston, he usually lives on Santa Ana’s Westside. He has a job the next morning with a fencing company; his hands and arms are raw from that day’s work. “Better than some. . . . A lot of guys have warrants out, too. They’re always looking over their shoulder.”

Tim, soft-spoken and 21, will say little more than that he left San Jose “to get away from my old lady before I got into trouble. . . . You’re going to find a lot of fake names here.”

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A brother and sister travel under the names of Big Bear and Rookie Barney.

Rookie Barney, an attractive black woman of about 30, adjusts the curlers in her hair before she goes to sleep. She works for a Head Start program in Anaheim, she says, but she got tossed out of a so-called friend’s apartment because she disturbed her sleep one night.

“I don’t understand why a person needs to sleep all day,” Rookie Barney says. “One of these days, when I’m back on my feet--and I will be back on my feet--my day will come.”

She rambles, and it is hard to follow her story, but there is something about parents dying in Arkansas and brothers and sisters not helping each other out. She looks well, but she is not.

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“There is so much stress on the streets, so much agony, sometimes you just want to cut your wrist or blow your head off,” Rookie Barney says. Her brother has been asleep for an hour. “People don’t seem to care anymore.”

At 4 a.m., working from a check-in list with assigned cot numbers next to names, County Social Services Agency employees Norma Roberts and Ingrid Harita wake up men who must leave early to get to their jobs.

By 4:30 a.m., they have folded up their cots and blankets and are in a shuttle van headed for the Salvation Army, where they stow their gear, and then to the bus station so they can get to work by 6 or 7 a.m.

There is talk of saving enough money for a room or an apartment, and some do, even if just for a few days. There is also talk of drinking.

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“We had some money Christmastime. What else is there for a tramp to do when he’s got money ‘cept drink?” says a bearded man of about 30. “Five of us, we drank seven cases of beer and a fifth of Black Velvet. Oh, man, I’m just coming off that now.”

The rest of the crowd is roused about 5:30 a.m. The lights are switched on, Martinez yells out clean-up instructions that echo through the armory. There will be no breakfast served until all cots and blankets are folded and stacked and the bathroom is clean, he says.

About half an hour later all of the chores are done, and the Orange County homeless line up for oatmeal and coffee before heading out to their jobs, their doctor’s appointments, the welfare or unemployment office or just another long day on the streets.


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