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Homeless Reached End of Painful Roads on Cold L.A. Nights : 4 Who Died: A Tangle in Threads of Life

January 25, 1987|PATT MORRISON and DEBORRAH WILKINSON | Times Staff Writers

Tommy Allen, Navy man. Ralph Frederick, mechanic. James Miller, Army veteran. Valerie Moreno, pianist and one-time prostitute.

In the span of 48 hours, their four lives ended--on a sidewalk, in public parks, alongside a junked car--when cold swept the mythic postcard sunshine out of Los Angeles. All were in their 50s--well short of the life span the actuarial tables promise to Americans of the 1980s.

All were fighting the bottle, which means that they were fighting themselves, their families and friends and myriad private demons. All save one were basically homeless, but all of them had something that passed for shelter: an abandoned car, a hotel room, friends or relatives who put them up.

On three consecutive nights last weekend, they all lay down in the cold and lost their battles. Their deaths, across the compass points of Los Angeles, ignited a spark of concern which fired authorities to take unusual measures for the homeless--33,000 by one estimate--in the city's streets and parks and alleys.

The City Council opened City Hall to them, then moved them to a building in Little Tokyo. It relaxed zoning restrictions on homeless shelter and temporarily opened city Housing Authority apartments. The Board of Supervisors voted to send workers out to persuade the homeless to accept shelter and to hand out hotel vouchers when temperatures fall below 40. They asked local schools to open their gymnasiums, and National Guard units to open their armories.

For these four, it was their deaths, not their lives, that made important people take notice. But each death was woven from the varied fabric of how each of them had lived. And braided together, those threads formed a knot of circumstance that no one could ever quite untangle.

On the day Valerie Moreno died of the cold, two coats hung in her closet--a soft red one, and a tan one with big buttons.

A good wool blanket lay on her bed. Cans of soup and beans were stacked on her window sill. About $300 sat in her bank account. A radiator regularly hissed warmth into her hotel room, where the rent was paid until Feb. 1.

Yet Valerie Moreno died--on the streets, in front of a restaurant in Chinatown, where she had once been a call girl, and had made good money and good friends in "the most superior (community) in the whole city of Los Angeles," she wrote.

She died of hypothermia; her body temperature was too low to register on the thermometer that Dr. Jeffrey Polekoff used at French Hospital. "I've never had a patient who felt quite that cold," Dr. Polekoff said.

In one of the notebooks she maintained, recording her grievances about her life, Moreno had once written the word in blue ink--HYPOTHERMIA.

Couldn't Be Saved

It was 36 degrees outside when Dr. Polekoff got to the hospital last Friday. Two hours later, none of medicine's lifesaving measures could revive her.

She was 54 years old, and her 40 years on her own, sliding into psychiatric and drinking problems, had made her a stranger to her family--an educated, cultured family, related on her mother's side, the legend goes, to one-time Vice President Charles Dawes.

Moreno's mother had a USC music degree, and Moreno never forgot her own piano lessons. Even in her last tormented years, she could dazzle acquaintances with classics played from memory.

Moreno's death left her family with one more enigma: why she would turn her back, yet again, on people who cared for her, on "the comforts of home," as she wrote of her hotel room.

"I don't like to say my mom died in Chinatown on a curb--it hurts," said her son, who asked that his name not be used.

Always Refused

He invited her to live with them, but only if she took her medicine and gave up booze, the whiskey-and-milk mix she liked to sip. She always refused.

Why she died "hasn't all come together" for him yet. But the Chinatown years were her happiest, when "she was at the height of her existence, when everything was going good, at least in her frame of reference," he said.

Perhaps, when she left her fourth-floor room in the Olympic Hotel a few days before she died, he said, "she went down to find a dream, something that happened a long time ago. And the world changed, but she didn't."

The independence Moreno sought when she left home at age 14 exacted a stiff price.

A doctor once told her that she would become disoriented as she got older. "She used to buy books on what signs and symptoms to look for," her son said.

At first, she had money, some of it from prostitution. She owned houses and a hotel, her son remembered. But as mental illness took hold, things went awry. Two marriages failed. "Everything she had, she lost."

By the early 1980s, she was living in board-and-care facilities, with three meals a day and medical and psychiatric care, paid for by the government, with a few dollars left.

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