It's New Year's Eve at the Shed, but the homeless people gathered around a fire in this abandoned industrial building in Lancaster don't feel much like popping any champagne corks.
E.T., Red and Danny Martinez hold hands to pray. "Thank you, God. 1991 was a good year," E.T. says. "No, it was a bad year. But 1992 will be better."
With that slender hope, some of the handful of residents in the Shed begin to bed down under piles of blankets while a small fire burns itself out in a corner. It's only 9:30 p.m., but there will be no countdown to midnight inside this makeshift homeless shelter, created and run by the homeless themselves.
The Shed is an 11,000-square-foot steel barn-like building open on two sides that once housed the Fernando Alfalfa Milling Co., which established a feed yard at the five-acre site in 1936 and operated there until at least 1963. The building has been vacant for more than a decade and over the years has been taken over by the homeless.
On occasion, the building near the Southern Pacific railroad tracks in a commercial area north of Avenue I has housed nearly a score of people. Martinez, an out-of-work aerospace worker, has stayed there the past eight months. He lives behind four box springs propped on edges in a corner of the building and has appointed himself manager by virtue of his seniority, though manager seems a weak word for his authoritarian administration.
With him in control, gaining admission can be a little like trying to get into a trendy disco in Hollywood. To stay there, you must either have stayed there before or know someone who has done so. Alcohol is allowed. Drugs aren't.
Martinez carries a club at his side to enforce his edicts. Arnold (A.C.) Boag, a bronc rider from Billings, Mont., shows up during the evening with a suitcase. "I'm cold," he says.
"We're filled up," Martinez says. "I take care of my own."
Red, whose real name is Edward Ayala, pleads the newcomer's case, "He's cold. It's New Year's. Give him a break."
"Bring him in, I gotta check him out," Martinez responds, then issues orders to the stranger. "Don't bring your things in here like you're gonna stay. I'm glad you've got those glasses on so you can see what I hit you with."
E.T., whose name is Tom Nadeau, understands Martinez's harshness. "Someone's gotta scare them away or we'll be overrun with people," says Nadeau, an out-of-work plumber.
Later, Martinez yells at a man and woman huddling in the shadows on the other side of the building. "I evict you from my house! You never bring me no food. You won't talk to me. You can stay here tonight, but you're outta here in the morning."
"I've seen as many as 17 live here," says Red, who explains that high blood pressure and arthritis keep him from working as a house painter. "There's been a lot of drifters come through here. There's a lot of memories here--good and bad."
For some of the merchants in the area, the memories are only bad. "I got to the point I didn't even want to come in here," said Metta Vemi, who has operated Frank's Shoe Repair for 18 years at Avenue I near the railroad tracks. "Just a month ago they knocked out my windows. I know these people have to live someplace, but why here?"
Sheriff's Deputy John O'Neal said deputies go over to the Shed as many as a dozen times a week. "We go there on routine checks and when we have a suspect who is described as looking like they're homeless. We spend a lot of time over there."
A variety of people stay at the Shed, from people with alcohol and drug problems to those just down on their luck. Leon (Tex) Welch has been in Lancaster for two years and at the Shed for a month. He came from Tucson, where he did housing construction.
"I came here to make a living--there's no living here." He stayed at a conventional shelter in the past, but has found comradeship at the Shed. "I like the guys around here. Pretty down-home guys here."
However, the days of the Shed now appear numbered. Two weeks ago the property's owner, S & I Associates of Burbank, was granted a demolition permit. Company officials could not be reached, but one city official said the building could be torn down within days.
"You can't stop progress," Red says fatalistically. "I guess we're creating too much trouble."
But Martinez refuses to believe it. "They're not going to tear this down. It's all bolted together," he says.
As the old year draws to a close, the men become contemplative.
"I wish to God that everybody was happy," Martinez says.
"You gonna be all right?" E.T. asks.
"Homeless people take care of one another," Martinez replies. He takes a blanket and tucks Red in, and kisses him good night.
The prayer said, E.T. decides to leave. As he approaches the footpath outside he calls back to Martinez: "I might come back, am I welcome?"
"Yes," Martinez answers.