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Waiting Is a Matter of Degrees : Shelters: The homeless watch daily to see if the temperature will dip low enough to allow them to spend the night in the National Guard Armory.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A steady flow of homeless men shuffles into the Oxnard Public Library each day to peer at an electronic message board over the main desk that tells them if it is cold enough to sleep at the Oxnard National Guard Armory.

Others head for Project Understanding’s headquarters in Ventura, waiting to see if a sign has been posted stating that the weather forecasts are dire enough for the armory to open.

The armory is the favorite sleeping place for many of the homeless in Ventura County, a place where they can get warm food, hot showers, a cot for the night and a minimum of the restrictions they face at some private shelters.

But, on any given day, it is a gamble on whether the armory will be open. Because of county budget concerns, the decision is made only when temperatures are expected to drop below 40 degrees, or when forecasts call for a 50% chance of rain combined with a low of 50 degrees.

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If the nod goes to opening the armory, the word travels fast on the streets of Oxnard and Ventura, the two cities with the bulk of the county’s homeless population.

Local parks frequented by the homeless, other shelters and even a liquor store in Oxnard just down the street from the shelter itself are transformed into information points where the homeless learn whether they can come in from the cold.

In October, Gov. Pete Wilson ordered about 40 National Guard armories statewide to open all winter, regardless of weather conditions. But the announcement was not accompanied by additional state or county funding, and the Red Cross officials who run the shelter say they can only partially comply with the governor’s goal.

For the 30 men waiting in front of the 100-bed shelter Monday evening, the news that had begun to spread in the early afternoon was good. For the sixth straight night, it was going to be cold enough outside for the armory to open.

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As they waited for the doors to open just before 7 p.m., some of the men paced in front of the building while others talked in small groups. Some wore shorts and a few wore heavy coats, although the temperature had already dropped into the low 50s.

Later, the temperature dropped to about 38 degrees--a typical reading for what shelter directors are calling one of the earliest cold spells of recent years. Many of the 44 people who bedded down for the night in the armory’s cavernous multipurpose room said they were simply happy to be indoors.

“I’ve spent three straight nights here. It’s too cold to sleep in my car anymore,” said Abel, a 40-year-old unemployed construction worker from Zacatecas, Mexico.

“Tomorrow, when I leave here, I’ll go walk the streets and look for work. What else is there for me to do until I know if this is going to be open again?” he asked, sipping coffee from a plastic foam cup and starting a game of cards with a group of Spanish-speaking men.

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This is the fourth year that the Oxnard National Guard Armory at 351 South K St. has been used as a winter warming shelter for the homeless. The center has been open every night since last Wednesday, averaging more than 40 guests a night.

Although the crowd is primarily single men, four women were also housed there Monday. Families have shown up on other nights, shelter manager Danny Quolas said.

Aside from providing a warm place to sleep, the armory offers the homeless a hot dinner, showers, clean, used clothing and some limited medical care, as well as a small breakfast when the homeless leave about 7:30 the next morning.

Quolas--one of three paid employees staffing the shelter Monday--said many of the people using the facility are returnees from previous years.

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“We get all sorts of people here, from migrant farm workers who can’t find a job when the season changes, to what I call the migrant homeless, who just move from shelter to shelter, because they want to,” Quolas said.

Bill is one of the migrant homeless Quolas refers to, a large, bearded man who said this is his third year at the armory.

While eating a bowl of beef stew prepared by Red Cross volunteers, Bill said he appreciates having a place such as the armory available, but adds that he is not dependent on it.

“I’ve got a three-pound down sleeping bag over there,” he said, pointing toward the cot near which he had stashed his belongings. “If the armory is closed I’ll just head off and find some shrubs to sleep under, I can do that.”

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Bill and the other homeless people using the armory will almost certainly spend some nights outdoors this winter. The current armory budget of $47,500 is only half of what would be needed to keep the facility open all winter, said Nancy Steinhelper, the chief of adult services for the Public Social Services Agency.

Steinhelper’s job includes deciding each day whether to open the facility. The criteria used this year is similar to other years, Steinhelper said.

“The county wants the shelter to be open as often as is possible,” Steinhelper said. “We’re just going to have to take it one day at a time right now.”


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