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BAY AREA QUAKE : Homeless Find Port in a Storm : Shelter: The Navy brings three ships to San Francisco, where sailors pitch in ashore and the vessels serve as floating shelters.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Navy is under some peculiar sailing orders here, providing everything from a floating shelter for the homeless to amphibious mail delivery.

Three San Diego-based vessels--the Peleliu, an amphibious helicopter assault vessel; the Fort Fisher, a dock landing ship; and the Schenectady, a tank landing ship--weighed anchor in San Francisco Bay on Friday with about 1,650 Marines and sailors reporting for disaster duty.

Since then, the hulking gray ships have played a unique role in earthquake recovery, officials said.

The 39,300-ton Peleliu literally provided a safe harbor for hundreds of derelicts and other downtown denizens uprooted by the quake by turning its helicopter hangar into a huge dormitory.

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Rows of Red Cross cots were lined up in precise rows for the 325 men who trooped up the gangplank Sunday night with their few belongings in plastic trash bags. Urns of hot coffee took the edge off Monday’s chill, and small television sets relieved the boredom for the new shipmates.

The men were free to come and go until 10 p.m. curfew, but some expressed reservations about being on board.

“Some of the guys don’t feel safe on the ship,” said Joseph Bruno, 45, whose welfare hotel in the Tenderloin suffered extensive quake damage. “A lot say they don’t know how to swim if anything happened, and others are Vietnam vets who don’t like being around the military.”

Another man, standing barefoot in the rain alongside the ship, noted that the cavernous quarters were “too cold, but the food’s great. We had steak last night.”

The Navy is providing the food, and the ship’s mess is the only place on board where the sailors and the homeless mingle.

Because many of the homeless have substance abuse problems, the Red Cross said, two fully equipped detoxification vans are parked at the bottom of the Peleliu’s gangway. Ship doctors are available twice a day to the homeless for sick call.

Military spokesmen said a few knives were confiscated from the homeless men, but there have been no incidents reported aboard the ship.

Crew members from the three vessels are helping with earthquake recovery in hard-hit neighborhoods by strapping down water heaters in unstable homes, clearing fallen trees and helping senior citizens move out of condemned buildings.

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Sailors also have been making sandwiches for rescue workers at the collapsed section of the Nimitz Freeway.

The Navy also agreed to lend a barge to the U.S. Postal Service to carry 40 mail delivery trucks across the bay from Oakland to San Francisco, and helicopters from the Peleliu ferried food and water to stricken Santa Cruz, said Navy spokesman Chief Petty Officer Erik Erickson.

Erickson said there are no estimates yet on the cost of military help in earthquake recovery efforts. “We’ll sort that all out later with the wash,” he said.

The Peleliu homeless were among nearly 1,000 evacuees forced to move from the Red Cross shelter at the city’s main convention hall, the Moscone Center, which is getting ready for a meeting of 6,000 plastic surgeons next week.

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The other Moscone residents were sent to temporary quarters in barracks at the Presidio Army post.

“We just wanted to provide a place that would offer everyone more comfort, more privacy and more dignity,” said Red Cross spokeswoman Chris Garrett. She said the evacuees had been sleeping in the ballroom and lobby of the Moscone Center, which lacked showers and adequate dining facilities.

“I just can’t imagine what it was like sleeping with a thousand other people snoring and gritting their teeth,” Garrett said.

It was not clear how long the Peleliu would house earthquake victims. While the Navy said it would only be for three or four days, the Red Cross said it was under the impression that the stay would be for as long as necessary.

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The Peleliu was diverted to San Francisco for disaster duty after the helicopter carrier completed an exercise in the Aleutian Islands.


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