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Reporter's Notebook: 'Homeless' for a night

Jimmy is homeless and, based on stereotypes many of us harbor, looks the part.

His hair is long and shaggy, his beard thick and graying, his face a little weathered. He said he's been homeless since he was 11, the same year he became addicted to drugs. The 47-year-old ex-convict said he has been arrested more than 250 times, but even his ex-wife is proud to be associated with him. Jimmy receives but he also gives back, she noted with pride.

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Though he still lives on the streets, he's remained clean and sober for nine years. Word is, Jimmy knows "all the spots" in town where the homeless can sleep.

Keeping his hands in his pockets, a withdrawn Jimmy spoke in short phrases. He said all he wanted to say in about a minute. The homeless, according to Jimmy, "all need a roof over their heads, a place to go, to get out of the cold."

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He concluded with "that's it" and sat down.

I got the feeling Jimmy didn't care to say much about himself in front of other people, though it's fair to say the audience was probably about as nonjudgmental as they get.

They were all participants in Costa Mesa's first Sleep Out on Superior, a homeless awareness event held Friday. It was organized by the nonprofit Share Our Selves and planned in conjunction with National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.

Activities included preparing food bags, though several participants went the extra mile: sleeping outside at SOS' Superior Avenue headquarters on cardboard boxes to get a sense of what many homeless endure.

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I was one of them.

As a journalist on assignment, I've slept in or on cars, couches, boats, fish canneries, Coast Guard C-130s and the floor of a small community hospital. Never, until Friday, in a parking lot.

When I arrived, SOS' volunteer services manager, Julie Neja, helped me find my spot on the asphalt. She set down four boxes side by side. The boxes were labeled for ground beef patties, but for me, they were a bed for the night.

I chose a spot next to a wall. Towering behind me was one of those new three-story live-work units, part of a still-under-construction development where homes apparently targeting the young and upwardly mobile start in the mid-$700,000s. They are replacing a trailer park that, until last year, had been there since the 1940s.

We were having our sleep-outside experience in the shadow of a symbol of upper-middle-class comfort.

But while I joined Sleep Out on Superior to learn more about homelessness, about 35 others who opted to ignore the typical entertainment options for a Friday were also driven to aid the homeless and less fortunate.

Debora Ribas-Santos of Walnut was one of them. The second-year social-work graduate student at USC was among a few students from the university who slept out on Superior Avenue for the cause. (Public-relations students from Cal State Fullerton also participated.)

Standing among her classmates, cardboard boxes and sleeping bags around her feet, Ribas-Santos said participating in SOS' sleep-out "really boils down to what it means to be homeless and how we can help them."

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She added that she can understand homelessness, but "I don't know what it's like to be homeless." The hope was Sleep Out on Superior would give her and the other students a sense of it.

Their teacher, adjunct associate professor Thomas Peterson, also slept outside. He noted that his students were doing "community immersion" by studying Costa Mesa, visiting SOS, a shelter and the Someone Cares Soup Kitchen.

"It really changes it from classroom learning to real-life learning," Peterson said.

The USC students were among the event participants who donated hygiene products, which were then stuffed into socks to be given out to SOS clients.

SOS staff said the socks themselves are as valuable as the products in them.

Costa Mesa Brief, a local video news service, was there to film the event. Its reporter, Samantha Strodel, said she could relate to the plight of the homeless because she found herself in similar circumstances at one point. Family problems caused her to leave home for a few months, during which time she stayed wherever she could.

"You're scrapping quarters and pennies for a 75-cent hot dog at Circle K," Strodel said.

We were shown "Storied Streets," a documentary about homelessness that I found particularly effective because it does not over-hype or sentimentalize the subject matter with slick music or fancy editing. It lets facts speak for themselves through homeless men and women who essentially lose their identities because no one speaks their name or are urinated on and otherwise subjected to senseless acts of harassment.

For me, the most compelling was the tale of a high school teenager in Las Vegas whose mother abandoned him. Left without a home, he slept in his school's bleachers, stole food from 7-Eleven and basically never thought of himself as truly homeless.

The teen said that as a functioning student, not someone considered an unsanitary bum, he was an example of a lesser-known form of homelessness.

"I'd go to class," he said. "You couldn't tell the difference at all."

At the end of the film, Karen McGlinn, CEO of SOS, said she hoped we got the film's message.

"To have a response to it means there is an opportunity for change," she said. "And that's what it's all about."

Many of the sleep-out participants were asleep by midnight, but others stayed up past 1 a.m., gathered around a little fire, chatting away into the night.

I tried but probably didn't fall asleep until 2 a.m. I thought of how, when indoors, so many sounds of the outside world are easily insulated. When outside, it's as if our prehistoric instincts kick in and we are attuned to every noise, including passing cars, humming machinery and late-night chirping birds.

Around 3 a.m. I woke up, my back in pain, pressed against the hard ground. "Storied Streets" described how the homeless get little sleep, and I was beginning to sense that same frustration.

I probably woke up one or two more times before finally getting up at 6 a.m.

After a light breakfast, the participants seemed to be in a cheery mood despite grumblings about sleeping conditions.

"I was surprised at how damp everything got in the morning," said Long Beach resident Heather Wolfe, one of the USC social-work students. "Still, it was an experience."

My makeshift bed didn't take long to pack up. Around 7 a.m., I headed out.

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Before doing so, I overheard a woman saying that after her night on the street, she was "totally ready to go home."

Fortunately for us, on that Saturday morning in Costa Mesa, home was an option.

BRADLEY ZINT is a reporter for the Daily Pilot. He can be reached at bradley.zint@latimes.com.

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