Football on television. Bull sessions. Camaraderie. Card games. Friendships renewed. Friendships begun.
The opening of the Emergency Warming Shelter at the National Guard Armory in Oxnard had all the trappings of a fraternity mixer as members of Ventura County's homeless community came in from the cold this week for the first time since spring.
After devouring a hot meal, they climbed onto cots and went to sleep, a corrugated-metal roof over their heads instead of stars.
But the conviviality and comfort of Monday evening came to an abrupt end Tuesday when a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call sent the homeless back to the streets and uncertain living conditions. The shelter didn't open Tuesday night, and even on Thanksgiving, the homeless aren't assured of sleeping indoors.
For the next three weeks, the shelter, which can accommodate up to 120 people, will open sporadically as weather dictates. According to an agreement with the state, the Red Cross can use the armory before Dec. 15 if weather forecasts indicate nighttime temperatures below 40 degrees, or below 50 with a chance of rain. From that date on, the shelter will be open every night through March 15.
Other county shelters don't depend on weather. The Conejo Valley Winter Shelter in Thousand Oaks opens next Wednesday with 20 beds for men, women and families. The already opened Ojai Cold Weather Shelter has 20 beds for men, women and families, and the year-round Ventura County Rescue Mission in Oxnard houses 52 men in tents.
Some homeless don't like the arrangement at the armory.
"Aren't weather forecasts usually wrong?" asked Steve Ortiz, a 55-year-old Vietnam veteran who has been homeless since the late 1970s. "What happens if it gets a little colder or wetter than the predictions? I'll tell you what: I freeze my ass off."
The American Red Cross, which has operated the shelter the past five years, also dislikes basing its schedule on weather forecasts.
"That criteria makes things very difficult for us," program coordinator Richard Rink said. "It's hard to try for continuity of service not knowing if we're going to be open at night. We're all looking forward to Dec. 15."
So is Glenn Thompson, a 64-year-old Canadian who has been homeless for 20 years, drifting into Ventura County in the late 1980s because of its temperate climate. "The weather is delicious except for those rainy nights that chill you to the bone," Thompson said.
The light drizzle Monday evening triggered the opening of the armory and Thompson showed up along with about 30 other homeless men and three women. Some straggled in, pushing shopping carts or carrying possessions on their backs; others took the Red Cross van, which picked them up along the Ventura River bottom.
After filling out an information card at the front door, the homeless--the Red Cross refers to them as "clients"--checked their weapons, mostly knives, and got a reminder: no alcohol, no fighting, lights out at 10 p.m. The strict rules and overnight supervision by three Red Cross workers keep a lid on trouble, officials said.
"We try to make this as pleasant a living arrangement as possible considering we're in an armory," Rink said. "Most everyone here takes care of himself and works with the others to prevent problems--nobody wants to lose this place."
Many of the homeless at the armory had been there before and knew the routine. They were old hands, gentle survivors who steer clear of dangerous situations.
"We're like a family," Ortiz said, looking around at his friends in their mismatched clothing and uneven beards. "Even in our little camps, if there's one troublemaker, we kick him out."
A half-hour before the shelter opened at 7 p.m. Monday, Red Cross workers and volunteers transformed the armory. A Humvee was driven off the gray, concrete floor and dozens of cots were assembled. Dining tables and a portable television were placed near the front of the armory, which is the size of a large gymnasium.
Rink unlocked a supply trailer and picked the menu for the night, choosing corned-beef hash over beef stew, chile con carne and pork and beans. Volunteers prepared the meal in a narrow galley. Valerie Lam, 11, and her 8-year-old sister, Joceline, buttered three loaves of bread.
"This is going to be cool to share with my classmates," said Valerie, who attends St. Mary Magdalen School in Camarillo.
The girls became volunteers by default when their mother, Juliette Dang, couldn't find a baby-sitter. Dang works for the city of Oxnard, which is sending volunteers to the shelter one night a week.
"We're lucky to have a job and a home," Dang said. "Volunteering is about helping others who are less fortunate."
Not everybody at the shelter was a street veteran. Bob and Debbie Waters rented a house in Oxnard until the bank foreclosed on the owner and they were evicted Oct. 22. Debbie, 37, is disabled, suffering from a muscle disorder caused by a reaction to the drugs she was taking after a nervous breakdown, said Bob, 38.
The couple had been staying at separate shelters until their reunion Monday night at the armory, where married couples and families are allowed.
"Thank God there's something out there for us," said Bob, an unemployed construction worker and cook.
Although mainstream Americans sometimes get depressed during the holiday season, some homeless say they don't have the time to go into a funk.
"The holidays don't mean much right now," Bob said. "Survival is the main point."
Wearing camouflage khakis, Sgt. David Barnett, a veteran of the Los Angeles riots, said he was "the token National Guard rep" at the shelter. When the homeless finished their breakfast and left about 6 a.m. Tuesday morning, the armory was once again turned into headquarters for the National Guard's Alpha Company, Third Battalion, 160th Mechanized Infantry, and Barnett went home to Newhall.
Barnett hopes the shelter stays open. Like the people who sleep there, he is unemployed, having lost his job Sept. 1 as a hospital security guard. Pulling all-night shelter duty means extra pay from the National Guard, so he plans "to be here every night it's open unless I get a job."
Barnett expects a happy ending to his predicament, but he understands how events can sometimes conspire to send people into a tailspin. Motioning to the homeless men and women at the shelter, he said, "There but for the grace of God go I."
Thanksgiving dinners for the needy will be served in Ventura County at the following locations and times: TODAY
Number Location Time of Meals Ventura County Rescue Mission Noon to 2 p.m. 600 234 E. 6th St., Oxnard
*THURSDAY, THANKSGIVING DAY
Number Location Time of Meals Knights of Columbus Hall 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. 1,000 to 1,200 36 S. Figueroa Plaza, Ventura World University Noon to 4 p.m. 75 to 100 107 N. Ventura St., Ojai Zoe Christian Center at the 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. 500 to 700 Boys & Girls Club of Oxnard 126 E. 7th St., Oxnard