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Guard Sessions Take Precedence : Homeless Can’t Use Armories on Weekend

Times Staff Writer

Long-planned National Guard training sessions will monopolize armories in Santa Ana and Fullerton for most of this week, making them unavailable to the homeless who have been sheltered there during recent cold nights.

The news caught county officials and local help-the-homeless volunteers by surprise. Volunteers confirmed the news Tuesday, then issued an urgent appeal for temporary shelter space should cold rains or frigid night-time temperatures make emergency shelters necessary.

Exhibit Halls Suggested

“We need big gymnasiums, maybe exhibit halls like the ones at the fairgrounds, maybe big church halls,” said Scott Mather, who heads the Orange County Homeless Task Force. His mainly volunteer organization coordinates the opening of emergency shelters when overnight temperatures are predicted to fall to 40 degrees, or to 50 degrees when a 50% chance of rain is forecast.

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“The county has the cots, blankets and towels, and we have the food, transportation and volunteers,” Mather said. “We have everything to operate a facility; all we need is a facility.

“We’ve made a few contacts, but we’re not getting very far,” Mather said late Tuesday.

The forecast for the rest of the week is that a cold front will move into Orange County and the rest of the Southland on Thursday, which could mean a return of rain and cold weather. The National Weather Service, whose forecasts govern whether emergency shelters are opened, was predicting low temperatures in the 40s for Thursday through Saturday mornings.

Maj. Steve Mensik, a National Guard spokesman in Sacramento, said the coming weekend is “a heavy drill weekend throughout the state. We try to have everyone drill on the same weekend. I’d be surprised if there are any armories not being used this weekend for (the) drill.”

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Typical training will be refresher courses in map reading, radio operation, first-aid and mobilization procedures, Mensik said, adding that such training weekends are scheduled more than a year in advance.

As a result of the training, the Santa Ana and Fullerton armories would not be available to the homeless on Friday or Saturday nights, Mensik said. In addition, the Fullerton armory will be closed Thursday and Sunday nights because it will be involved in equipment loading and unloading operations.

Although the Santa Ana armory could be made available to the homeless on Thursday and Sunday nights, Mather said, “We’re still going to be jammed.”

Mather said the surprise word of the armory-scheduling problem resulted from “a breakdown in communication.”

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“We reserved the (Santa Ana and Fullerton) armories for December and January, but we didn’t know that the Guard’s regularly scheduled activities would take precedence over ours,” he said. “Nothing can be done about it. There’s no bad guy.”

So far, the armories have been open for the homeless all but two days since Dec. 15, Mather said. They were not open on Dec. 21 because the weather was unusually warm, and they were not open on Dec. 26 because county officials miscalculated that the day would be warm, when in fact it turned very cold, he added.

The armories did not open Tuesday night because the prediction of rain was only 20% and temperatures were forecast to dip to the middle-to-high 40s.

Mather said donors of temporary shelter space will, under state law, be free of liability hazard and will have exclusive use of their facilities during daylight hours.

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“We’ve been doing this for a while and it goes very smoothly. If someone opened up a hall for us, we’d have them in about 5 p.m. and out by 7:30 a.m.” He said those spending the night in such shelters would be transported by volunteers.

Mather said what is needed is a large floor space with a nearby kitchen and, ideally, shower facilities. “Showering is important. A lot of these guys have jobs,” he pointed out.

Shelter is needed for a total of about 300 people, Mather said. He estimated that the average high school gymnasium would comfortably house about 120 people and the average church hall about 75 to 100.

Staff writer Jim Carlton contributed to this story.

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