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In the Face of El Nino, the Homeless Could Use a Few Foul-Weather Friends

Patty Bell loves El Nino weather. It’s a great time, she says, “to curl up in front of the fireplace with a good book.” But Bell has seen the other side too.

She works for the Orange County Rescue Mission in Santa Ana, which offers about half of its 80-some beds to the homeless for short-term emergency relief from the streets. The other half are for those willing to enter its long-term program.

How crowded the place gets often depends on the weather, she told me on Friday: “When the rain comes back, we’ll be maxed out. And we may have to turn people away.”

Then, she told me about the Marriott man. He lives in a cardboard lean-to alongside the short Nutwood Avenue offramp of the Orange Freeway in Fullerton. A caller to the mission was concerned about how the man would hold up in the El Nino-related rains. The Rescue Mission wants to get its mobile unit out to offer him help. But it needs two people for its van runs. Lately the mission has been hit by a rash of flu problems that have kept the van mostly out of use.

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Bell didn’t call him the Marriott man--the caller wasn’t even sure if it was a man or woman. But Bell told me the only way to find his makeshift housing was to go to the second floor of the Fullerton Marriott Hotel parking garage and look toward the freeway.

So that’s what I did. Leaning over the parking lot’s railing, I peered for several minutes into the thick willow-type bushes without spotting it. Finally, I barely caught the red of an old tarp he has used to cover pieces of discarded thick cardboard panels put together in A-frame style. This tiny weather-shelter was buried so deep in the bushes, I had trouble finding it even when I parked along the southbound offramp, just a few feet from it.

I didn’t find whoever had created this crude housing. But there were signs that it was a he--two pairs of old shoes nearby were men’s. There was also evidence that he had been there that morning. Perhaps during the time I was there he was out scavenging.

I felt chills peering inside the tiny A-frame, barely large enough for just one person. He’d created a bed of worn carpet pieces atop some sturdy sideboard material. A few old clothes had been bunched up for a pillow. There were no blankets of any kind. But its creator had been ingenuous enough to rig this bedding atop some pieces of scrap iron to keep himself off the wet ground.

I thought of this man lying there all night in one of those fierce rains we’ve had, the constant roar of the freeway, just steps away, his only companion.

“When the rain comes, the homeless find any means they can--parking garages, bushes, whatever it takes to try to stay dry,” Bell said. “The really sad thing is when they come here with children and we have to turn them away. We do our best to refer them to other places, but we can’t always find something.”

We won’t solve the homeless problem before the next rain. But if you happen to belong to a church group or something similar in the Fullerton area and you’re looking for a way to help the poor, you might stop to see if you can find the Marriott man. Maybe he could use a cup of coffee or a blanket.

First Stamped, First Served: If you have thoughts of going to that free U.S. Air Force Band of the Golden West concert at the Anaheim Convention Center on Feb. 11, here’s a friendly suggestion:

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If you don’t already have an order form for tickets, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the Convention Center, P.O. Box 8720, Anaheim CA 92812. You can order up to six tickets and they will be mailed to you beginning early next week.

Yes, it’s free. But ticket holders will get first seating, a spokeswoman said. Those who show up at the door will have to take their chances on not getting good seats, or not getting any seats at all. A lot of corporations and business groups are obtaining large blocks of tickets.

The military band concert is in celebration of the Air Force’s 50th anniversary. Call the Convention Center at (714) 999-8980 if you want more details.

The Orange Oz: A lot of prominent people in this county make a habit of helping children who need help. More than 100 of them take to the stage at the Chapman University Theater in Orange today, at a 2 p.m. matinee and an 8 p.m. finale, for “CHOC Follies 1998--The Wizard of O.C.” The large-cast musical is a new annual benefit for Children’s Hospital of Orange County.

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The first follies was held a year ago and raised $170,000. Seats are available today ($45 to $100). You can call (888) ETM-TIXS (386-8497) for ticket information.

Starr Witness? Speaking of big musicals, I missed the Cal State Fullerton fund-raising bash at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim on Thursday night. (Besides the music, special guest speaker was TV journalism’s Walter Cronkite.)

But I did hear Dr. Laura Schlessinger rave about it on her KFI-AM (640) radio talk show Friday.

“Amazing, amazing, amazing,” Schlessinger said of the musical extravaganza presented by students and alumni of Cal State Fullerton’s School of the Arts. “You could pick up some of those performers and put them on Broadway and they’d be instant Tony winners.”

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Schlessinger was emcee for the event. She made it clear to her radio audience that stood for “master of ceremonies. I don’t want anyone to think I was mistress of ceremonies. With the political climate in Washington, I wouldn’t want to be called by [Independent Prosecutor] Kenneth Starr as a witness.”

Wrap-Up: With all the talk of brouhaha in Washington, someone decided it was time to seek out John Coolidge in Hartford, Conn. The only surviving child of President Calvin Coolidge, John Coolidge, 91, said he has too much respect for the office his father held (1923-29) to talk about Bill Clinton. He did say, though, that “People tell me they wish my father was back there--the older ones who remember him.”

I got a nice chuckle from this story because the Reuters writer who produced the piece Friday mentioned an anecdote I hadn’t heard since I was a schoolboy. Coolidge was known as a president of few words--"Silent Cal” they called him. At a White House dinner party, a young woman seated next to Coolidge told him she had a bet with friends that she could get at least three words of conversation from him.

Coolidge’s response: “You lose.”

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Jerry Hicks’ column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Readers may reach Hicks by calling the Times Orange County Edition at (714) 966-7823 or by fax to (714) 966-7711, or e-mail to jerry.hicks@latimes.com


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