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Memories of Suffering Inspire Skid Row Angel

January 31, 1985|VIRGINIA ESCALANTE | Times Staff Writer

On a Skid Row sidewalk in Los Angeles, people lay like lumps amid the rubble, covering themselves with rags, tattered blankets--anything they could find to keep warm.

In a parking lot at Los Angeles and 4th streets, a long line of homeless men, women and children waited for a Sunday meal, their hard luck giving the warm beans a bitter flavor.

Coreena Moss of Long Beach, blonde and neatly made up, stepped out of a van that was weighed down with clothing and more food. Her friends, Linda Day and Rose Marie Erickson, already were serving meals at a long table.

A homeless man with a steaming plate in one hand hurried to greet Moss.

"Hey, Coreena, how ya doin'?" he said, reaching out to hug her.

"Hi, how's my sweetheart?" replied Moss.

The exchange ended as a woman approached.

"I've got some shoes and a couple of dresses for you," Moss said, turning to answer her need.

Moss, who is in poor health and has no income herself, has been feeding and clothing the homeless since November, when "a friend told me there were people starving and living on the streets."

Four to five times a week, she finds the homeless people, or they find her, at the parking lot where she gives them what she can.

On Sundays, Day and Erickson help her by providing dinner, a project the Simi Valley women have carried out since December, when they heard about Moss' efforts.

Moss, who suffers from a rheumatic heart and diabetes, also wants to help the homeless in Long Beach and will extend her efforts there next month.

"They're eating out of trash cans (in Long Beach) and it's got to stop," she said.

The ailing woman seems to be sustained by her religious faith, her compassion springing from a tragic childhood spent on a Wisconsin farm.

"I'm not a religious fanatic," Moss said, "but I really believe this is the reason God's keeping me alive for as long as I am. My heart was so bad, the doctors told me I wasn't going to live without heart surgery."

She empathizes with those suffering on the street.

"When I was a child, I went hungry. I know what it's like. I just don't think God meant for people to go hungry on the streets. I just want to cry every time I see them. You see how people treat me. Everybody knows me by name."

Sells Her Possessions

To pay for the food, Moss sells her personal possessions. At Christmas, she sold her car for $1,000 so she could serve three dinners to hundreds of the homeless.

Moss also relies on clothing donations and assistance from Day and Erickson.

Erickson, who called Moss' work "terrific," said she responded to Moss' call for help because the situation was "amazing, and there couldn't be so many people on the street wanting to be out there. I figured, 'My God, we have Ethiopia. It would be easier to send a check, but I'd like to help here.' "

Moss said that although there are some derelicts, most of the homeless that she encounters are simply out of work.

The dangers of Skid Row don't deter Moss, who declined to give her age, saying she is in her "late 30s."

"Just seeing the people lying on the sidewalk and having them come up to us and say: 'If it wasn't for you, we wouldn't eat,' gives me a really good feeling," she said. "I love seeing a smile when I give them food."

Moss, the daughter of alcoholic parents who beat and neglected their seven children, has not forgotten her hard times.

Recalling how she almost died when she was 8 years old, Moss said, "I had rheumatic fever, and my parents left me under a tree to die. They said: 'If she's gonna die, she's gonna die.' I crawled back and forth to a stream to get water on my face because I was burning up with a fever."

Moss said her grandfather saved her life after threatening his son with a shotgun.

By the time she was 13, Moss and her siblings were placed in foster homes.

But the homes were not much better, Moss said. "We were nothing but workhorses."

At 15, she was put in a girls' home, but ran away at 16 and joined a carnival. An unhappy marriage ensued, with her husband striking her in the stomach with a broom handle, killing her unborn child.

Moss said she "can't sleep nights" because the situations she sees on the street parallel her life.

'I See Myself'

"I see that little girl (a 4-year-old who was in the food line with her parents). I see myself. Our parents didn't cook for us. They slept till 12," she said.

Her own children have fared better. Her 15-year-old daughter wants to be a veterinarian; her 18-year-old son is studying to be a psychologist.

Moss, the good Samaritan, said she will continue her work for as long as she can.

On Sunday, she and her friends fed more than 400 people. Moss then went home and cooked until 6 a.m., limited by small pots and pans but undeterred by bad weather.

"We have to go out tonight, especially in the rain, because people are cold and don't have jackets," she said Monday.

That night Moss made another round in Los Angeles with the buckets of soup, beans, rice, and macaroni and cheese that are the standard fare.

"We don't hear a complaint," she said, adding that she worries about the fact that there are no bathrooms and no drinking water for the people living on the streets.

Moss has her own troubles. She is behind in her rent and has spent her insurance money on food. But she isn't discouraged.

"I'm hoping other people will see what I'm doing and pitch in to help or make donations," she said. "We're about out of everything."

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