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Homeless Warm to Gifts of Fur Coats : Donation: Some animal rights activists blast act as publicity stunt, but displaced women are delighted by furrier’s act.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The murmurs of expectation grew to a roar as the rack of furs--jackets and full-length coats, minks and rabbit-skin, black and brown and even purple--was rolled across the hardwood basketball floor at the local YWCA Monday evening.

“They’re here!” one recently homeless woman whispered, putting aside her Christmas dinner for the moment. Food could wait. This, after all, was a “once in a lifetime chance"--as one woman put it: free fur coats for the homeless.

Tired of talk of giving millions to “the Russians,” furrier Ted Bizakis of Anaheim said he wanted to do something to help the homeless here in Southern California, so he and his wife donated to the YWCA more than 30 used coats that had been traded in by customers.

Some animal rights activists blasted the “great fur giveaway” as a cheap publicity stunt for an industry that has been hurt by public protests. But fur recipients and YWCA officials--in the midst of a large drop in donations because of the recession--weren’t questioning the motives behind the unusual benefit.

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“We can’t bring the animals back to life,” said Mary Douglas, executive director of the Santa Ana YWCA, “and if it helps keep them warm, that’s the important thing. . . . It’s absolutely wonderful to have people thinking about those in need.”

Added Dianne Russell, the YWCA hotel manager: “This certainly puts a new twist on being homeless for the holidays.”

About 30 women living at the YWCA--many of them recently homeless, displaced from jobs and families, and recovering from drug or alcohol problems--received coats. When they showed up for Christmas dinner Monday evening, many said they were not even aware of the giveaway.

But by the time the rack of furs was rolled out, the word had spread. And the women waited anxiously--some clapping their hands and stamping their feet--as volunteers passed around an envelope with individually numbered slips of paper inside. The numbers would determine the order in which the women could choose their unexpected Christmas presents.

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“Oh my God, I’m No. 1!” screamed Simone Leon, who said she had been living in a park in Garden Grove for several months after breaking up with her boyfriend and losing her job at as a manager at a well-known Malibu restaurant.

“This is unbelievable! . . . I don’t know where to start,” she said as she perused the rack.

Carefully, she picked out a $450, reddish-brown, full-length mink and tried it on. Declaring it delightfully “snug,” she walked toward the crowd and showed it off for admirers, with all the aplomb of a high-priced fashion model making her final walk down the runway.

“I don’t even have a winter coat, so I’ll be sure get great use out of it. It’s always been a fantasy to have a fur coast,” Leon said. “It’s just glamorous. It makes you feel special.”

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Ted and Maria Bizakis, the Orange furriers who donated the coats, said they were moved by the increasing numbers of homeless people they see through the media. The recession has hurt business at their shop, Ted Bizakis said, but the used coats--valued at more than $9,000--wouldn’t have made up the difference anyway, he said.

“Everybody needs help,” he said, “and this was our way of helping.”

Animal rights activists said they had never heard of such a move by a furrier, but they had mixed reactions to it.

“We don’t want to see any furs at all,” said Eileen Pinder, manager of the Huntington Beach Humane Society, “but at least they’re being put to good use, with people who have come off the streets. . . . These people are using them for warmth, not as a status thing, to be able to say, ‘I’ve got the money to wear dead animals on my back.’ ”

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Less impressed was Chris DeRose, president of a Los Angeles group called Last Chance for Animals.

Lambasting the move as an “unethical” way to get publicity, DeRose said: “I’ve never heard of anything like this. The cause of helping the homeless is certainly important, but I can’t condone this way of doing it.”

Women at the YWCA said they were aware of concerns from animal rights activist but few seemed fazed. Indeed, the risk of losing the coats on the street to thieves who prey on the homeless seemed more of a worry for some.

“To each his own,” one woman said of critics in the animal rights community.

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One woman refused to take a coat, but she would not say why. Another grimaced when told that she was wearing a rabbit fur but she kept it anyway. And Shirley Wright, 29, a recovering drug addict, who considers herself a “humanist” and an animal lover, said, “I definitely don’t have a guilty conscience” about accepting a black fur jacket.

“I don’t know what the future holds for me,” she said. “But at least wherever I’m going, I’m going in style, and I’ll be warm, even if I’m sleeping on a park bench somewhere.”


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