Raymond C. Fico, known as “Blanket Man” because of his efforts to keep homeless people warm and dry, sprang into action when this month’s earthquakes left people on the streets, quickly handing out 14,000 blankets in Los Angeles County.
Unfortunately, the 74-year-old humanitarian said Friday, the effort has severely depleted his warehoused stock of coverings and clothes intended to help Orange County’s street population.
“Our funds are real low now, too,” Fico said. “But when we saw on television those (earthquake-affected) people, my heart just jumped out to them.”
Fico and his squad of volunteers have made four trips to the quake-rocked San Fernando Valley, handing out 5,000 of his space-age survival blankets, shiny silver tarpaulins outfitted with hoods and snaps so they can double as ponchos.
“The day after we handed out a lot of them, the rains came,” said the retired minister from Anaheim Hills. “And we saw all these people in lines for food, and all of them were wearing the blankets. It was such a joy to see that.”
A van packed with 1,000 survival blankets left Fico’s cluttered but neat headquarters in Huntington Beach on Thursday. “That cleaned us out. We’ve only got about 250 left,” he said Friday. “And the phone keeps ringing with people asking for more.”
Fico’s private campaign to help the homeless was sparked in 1985 when he saw a televised report depicting huddled street people shivering at Christmastime. He and his wife decided to forgo holiday gifts and instead buy 250 cotton and polyester blankets for the disadvantaged.
Fico’s generosity extended past the Yuletide season. He founded the nonprofit Covering Wings Inc., and soon devised the silver polyurethane blankets, which fare far better when exposed to the elements than similar-shaped cloth coverings.
He and his assistants have since given away more than 260,000 of the 5-by-7-foot blankets. Covering Wings, funded primarily through private donations, has now spread its operation to more than a dozen states, and the durable coverings have even been handed out in Mexico and parts of Europe and Africa.
Closer to home, the blankets are becoming ubiquitous among the displaced Angelenos who have gathered at emergency centers and tent cities in the days since the powerful temblors.
“A lot of people spread one out on the ground in their tents to keep the moisture out, then they wrapped another one around themselves,” said Fico, who plans at least one more trip to the San Fernando Valley. “We only got a few left, but it’s so good to see people using them. It’s great to be a help.”
Fico and his volunteers also distributed 5,000 pairs of socks, 4,000 T-shirts and 3,000 knitted hats to help quake victims fight off the chill of the Southland’s rainy season.
The Covering Wings quake relief effort was done in cooperation with the Fred Jordan Mission in downtown Los Angeles. The mission’s assistant director, Walter Contreras, said while his group handed out a variety of items--including inflatable mattresses, milk, juice, shampoo and bread--the metallic-looking coverings drew the greatest interest.
“There were hundreds and hundreds of people in line in just a few minutes after we set up,” Contreras said. “And the National Guard, too. The soldiers came up to us so they would have something to wear at night.”
Fico’s son-in-law and longtime associate, John Contreras (no relation to the mission director), said he and Fico patrolled the streets of affected areas, passing out the coverings to people who had set up shelters of their own in deserted lots.
“It was an unbelievable scene,” he said. “They were so grateful. I wish we could have done more. But we helped a lot of people.”
Fico said he’s certain divine intervention had his warehouse stocked full when the disaster struck. But now, he said, he must find a way to spread more warmth here in Orange County.
“We helped all those people, but now we’re taking away from the homeless here, all this stuff was to go to them,” Fico said. “But I’m not worried, God will provide for us. He always has.”
For more information about the survival blankets, or to volunteer or make donations, call Fico at (714) 968-3358, or write to Covering Wings, P.O. Box 17984, Anaheim Hills, 92817-7984.