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Thanksgiving on the Fringe of a Land of Plenty

November 27, 1987|RICHARD BEENE | Times Staff Writer

Bill Johnson doesn't want to sound ungrateful, and he certainly doesn't feel sorry for himself, but sometimes it all seems so unfair.

"I'm not a novelty here, you know," Johnson confided, looking at the solemn faces lined up for a free Thanksgiving Day meal at the Orange County Rescue Mission. "There are plenty of guys here, just like me, who can still put in a good full day's work. It's just that you can't find it, or find anything that will keep you off the streets more than a couple of days."

At 65, Johnson has fallen into what he calls "a life of drifting," a hand-to-mouth existence of soup kitchens, community shelters, handouts and more often than not "sleeping behind any old bush that you see from the street."

It is a life on the fringes of society, one that Johnson said keeps good men like himself just out of reach of legitimacy. And it is a life that brought Johnson and hundreds of others down on their luck to the Rescue Mission in Santa Ana for a free Thanksgiving Day meal.

"Thank God for these people here," said Johnson, who has lived on and off the streets since the death of his wife in 1976, the same year he was laid off from a metalworking job in Downey. "These people here are awfully kind to us, and without this, I guess I'd be going hungry today.

"You know, nobody is here because they want to be."

Johnson's story, in fact, is not that different from the down-on-your-luck tales told by many of the people who lined up at soup kitchens, churches and shelters across Orange County on Thursday for free turkey dinners with all the trimmings.

At the Rescue Mission alone, more than 2,500 people were fed--some of them poor Latino families, some illegal immigrants, some veteran drifters like Johnson or people newly down on their luck.

Free dinners also were served to the needy by the Salvation Army in Santa Ana and Anaheim and at the Southwest Community Center, Catholic Social Work and St. Joseph's Church, all in Santa Ana.

Johnson, who is originally from Duluth, Minn., said his sole means of support is a monthly $259 Social Security check. It is hardly enough, he said, "to keep me eating, and I sure ain't going to get into an apartment with that kind of money."

"Trouble is," he continued, straightening a blue baseball cap and adjusting a soiled yellow shirt, "that once you're down on your luck it's a hell of a thing to get back up. And at 65, who's going to hire me?"

Consider, for example, the case of Leo Johnson, who is not related to Bill Johnson but who also is trying to get back on his feet.

An unemployed carpenter from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Leo Johnson arrived in Santa Ana eight days ago, after the death of his wife. He had heard that Orange County was experiencing an economic boom and that there were plenty of jobs for everyone.

"Well, that's what we heard out there anyway . . . that there were a bunch of jobs and the economy here was good and strong," he said. "There just wasn't any place in Cedar Rapids for a guy like me to work." But after a week in hotels unsuccessfully looking for employment, he is now down to his last $20.

"The problem is I don't have any transportation, so it's hard to go look for work when you can't get around," he said. "I came here (to Santa Ana) because I thought it was in the middle of everything. . . . Then the money ran out . . . and now I'm here."

Leo Johnson, who is lean at 57, said he's looking for apartment maintenance work or house remodeling--or "maybe something where I get room and board and they pay me a little extra. It's not that I can't work.

"But if not, I may have to drop by here again."

Sunne Dae, the Rescue Mission's director, said people are just beginning to understand that not all the homeless are drunks or winos.

"The thing that people are beginning to realize is that the type of people we are serving is changing," he said. "We have had people out there with very good jobs but were forced to come here after they were laid off. And then today, we had a good many families, poorer families, who just couldn't afford to put on the big spread, so they turned to us. As the economy gets worse, the number of people who need some kinds of help increases."

In Costa Mesa, a similar scene was being played out at the Someone Cares Soup Kitchen in the Rea Community Center.

"There is a new culture of the homeless," said Merle Hatleberg, whose soup kitchen feeds about 150 homeless a day and served more than 500 for Thanksgiving. "A lot of people are just one paycheck away from being on the street or one serious illness away from losing everything."

Some, like 37-year-old Marty who refused to give his last name, said their homelessness is only temporary.

"I'm here because of emotional problems . . . a girlfriend," Marty said, almost boastfully. "I'll be back on my feet in a week or so. She got the money, and I got the streets. These people here, and this soup kitchen, they're good because they give you time to catch your breath."

Then there are others, such as Rubin Smith and his companion, Laura Ann Johnson, who have been regulars at the soup kitchen for the past 1 1/2 years and see no immediate improvement in the future.

"Well, it's hard," said Smith, 46, who carries a small bag with a blanket, some food and a change of clothes. "I sometimes work at night, janitor stuff, but that's not real regular. Laura, she had no friends, so I'm kind of taking care of her.

"It's better, you know, when you're out there on the street and you're with someone. It makes it . . . well, better."

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