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Worst Still to Come : Cold Intensifies Homeless Plight

December 01, 1987|BOB SCHWARTZ and MARIANN HANSEN | Times Staff Writers

Gene Rhodes' raw, reddened hands shook as he pulled a cigarette out of a crumpled pack Monday morning.

He had slept outside the night before, huddled in his bedroll and space blanket near Building 12 at the Civic Center complex in Santa Ana, and temperatures had dipped into the low 40s. Rhodes, 58, figured that it was about the 500th straight night he had spent on the streets.

"It's hard to get space in the shelters, and it's not really worth the trouble," said Rhodes, sitting on a bench outside the Santa Ana Public Library where he passes his days reading novels and history books and staying warm. His bedroll was stashed safely nearby, and his other worldly belongings were in a knapsack and bag at his feet. "It's cold out here, but we manage."

Seeking Shelter Elsewhere

With the evening temperatures dropping throughout Orange County, Rhodes and hundreds of other homeless people like him find themselves facing the longest nights of another year on the streets. Winter is only three weeks away, and volunteers at shelters for the homeless are bracing for the inevitable onslaught of too many people and too little space.

In the county's regional parks, rangers say the falling temperatures mean a lot of the homeless people who have camped there through the warmer months will begin to seek shelter elsewhere.

"A lot of them are construction workers who work nearby," Ranger Gilberta Crisel said Monday at O'Neill Regional Park. "It's cheaper here than a hotel."

It costs $7 per vehicle per day to stay at any one of the county's regional parks with camping facilities--but there is a 15-day-a-month limit. Those who spend all their time camping often alternate between Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside county parks, Featherly Regional Park Ranger John Bovee said.

There is no current authoritative estimate of the number of homeless people in Orange County, but a survey conducted two years ago by the Coalition of the Homeless showed about 3,000 individuals in shelters or cheap motels because they had no other housing. Another 2,000 were believed to be sleeping in the streets.

Last weekend, overnight temperatures dropped into the low 40s in much of the county and as low as 38 Saturday night in San Juan Capistrano. For those on the streets 11 months ago, that evoked bitter memories, though the nights are still much warmer than they were then.

Temperatures in the 30s on several consecutive nights filled shelters to overflowing last January. Thousands of blankets were distributed by churches and shelters to those who could not find space.

"We haven't seen the kind of overwhelming rush that we did during that last cold spell," Salvation Army business adminstrator Warren Johnson said of this year's demand for space in shelters. The group's Hospitality House in Santa Ana has been sheltering about 50 men and 16 women and children nightly, Johnson said, and is prepared to squeeze in more, "as long as we have a place for them to lie down," when the weather gets colder.

'Depending on Public'

"It will get colder--it always does," Johnson said. "We're depending on the general public for donations of blankets and food."

Most of the 75 beds at the Orange County Rescue Mission already are occupied every night, but the recent cold snap has not yet created "a big surge," said men's director Sunne Dae. "We've been passing out blankets, but not that many yet."

And at the YWCA's hotel for homeless women in Santa Ana, Diane Russell, director of support services, said there has not yet been a significant increase in demand for shelter. "We're full all the time, anyway." said Russell. "We don't have any choice but to refer them to the Salvation Army."

Russell said there are usually fewer homeless people at the hotel around the holidays, when families tend to be more accepting and landlords may let tenants with overdue rent stay on for a few more days.

"The next three weeks will be a better test," she said.

For Rhodes and others like him, though, the next few weeks will be no different from the previous few, except that they may be colder. A Denver native who moved to Southern California 18 years ago, Rhodes can't remember exactly what it was that put him out on the streets for good.

"I don't know for sure--it was just one of those things," Rhodes said. "I couldn't get a job like I wanted to, and then I had no place to operate, I was just floating. It was just a matter of here I am, there I ain't."

Life on the streets has taken a toll on Rhodes, judging from his cough and watery eyes. Monday, he couldn't remember when he last had seen a doctor--"I could go to UCI, but that's a long walk"--and he said he hadn't been able to keep food or water down since Saturday.

"My stomach's bad," Rhodes said. "I must have eaten something bad."

'Not All That Bad'

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