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Down and Out in Woodland Hills

May 27, 1986|JOHN McCOY

Frank Perkins' day, like that of many of his neighbors in Warner Center, begins with a cup of coffee and a copy of The Wall Street Journal. His coffee comes from McDonald's; his newspaper from a Dumpster.

Perkins also gets his food and clothing from Dumpsters. He sleeps next to them, behind the gleaming offices and banks of Woodland Hills. His mattresses are cardboard boxes, spread like pine boughs under a sleeping bag.

Perkins, 61, a weathered eccentric, for four years has spent most of his days under the tree nearest the intersection of Califa Street and Topanga Canyon Boulevard in Warner Park.

He's particular about his neighborhood. "I've lived in San Fernando, Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Encino, Tarzana, all over, but Woodland Hills is the best."

When the sun rises over his Dumpster about 6 a.m., Perkins pulls his woolen blanket away from his face and winces at the light. It usually takes about half an hour before he's on the move.

First he does his morning housekeeping. Blankets are folded, boxes are returned to the trash. Loading his shopping cart with his belongings, he scans his urban campground so that nothing is left behind.

As Perkins lingers over his second cup at McDonald's, he crushes a Marlboro butt into the bowl of his French-made pipe. He curses the harsh taste.

Drawing deep, Perkins recalls the years when he held a steady job and his family was intact. Perkins says he grew up in Boston, where he worked until 1954 as a cook, painter, janitor and handyman.

His wife and four children left him that year. He says he never asked them why and he has not contacted them since.

Perkins made his trek west by Greyhound bus. He has never left.

At first he held painting and construction jobs. He cooked for a cafe in Santa Monica, he says, but, in November, 1973, a frustrated, unhappy Perkins gave up on the working life and hit the road.

He slept on park benches and in alleyways and under trees in parks. "I've been on the road for 13 years, haven't slept in a bed in 12," he boasts.

At 8 a.m., after an hour or so at McDonald's, Perkins is ready to make his rounds. As it is for thousands of others arriving at Warner Center, it's time to go to work.

Perkins pushes off toward an Alpha Beta trash bin, where he says he usually has good luck finding food. "Alpha Beta is the best on Mondays because all of the weekend stock is thrown out."

Seeks Almost-Fresh Fruit

He finds cans that have been dented or whose expiration dates have passed. Occasionally, his foraging turns up a loaf of bread or some almost-fresh fruit.

Perkins scavenges to meet most of his needs. Jeans and gym clothes come from trash bins behind the dormitories at Los Angeles Pierce College. Other clothing, blankets and some food are donated to him from well-wishing residents who live near Warner Park. Sometimes he gets a handout--though he says he never asks--and occasionally he'll do odd jobs for a few dollars.

A liquor-store Dumpster supplies his water jug, washed out in a nearby gas station. Perkins doesn't search for leftover liquor and swears that he never takes a drop.

Friend Brings Park Lunch

He arrives at the park at 10 a.m., reads his newspaper and magazines and grabs an occasional nap until late afternoon. He also studies from the Bible and meditates.

Maria Elena Thomas, a Woodland Hills resident, noticed Perkins and his routine in the park. The pair have become friends. She has brought him lunch every day since their first meeting in March.

Perkins washes up and shaves at a Chevron station in the evenings before walking back to McDonald's for another cup of coffee. When the sun begins to go down, Perkins combs the streets of Warner Center for a piece of unoccupied blacktop behind a Dumpster.

Police who patrol the area weren't particularly hospitable at first, but they have come to accept him as a fixture of the park, Perkins says.

"I know all the 'Badge Boys,' " he said. "They know I don't bother anyone."

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