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Well-Heeled Befriend Down-at-Heels

January 25, 1988|RAY PEREZ | Times Staff Writer

In the chill night breeze, about 30 homeless men, draped in outsized jackets and scarfs, clustered around a van at a dark Santa Ana street corner.

The stench from cheap booze and the stale rust smell of nearby railroad tracks cut through the darkness, as the homeless men and a few quick-talking, street-wise women among them stepped up to receive sack lunches and a couple of pairs of clean white socks.

Among the five people offering the quick meal and warm clothing was Denise Banner, who smiled shyly and gazed directly into the eyes of each street person she greeted, her expensive golden earrings glinting in the moonlight.

Only a few hours earlier, Banner had been promoted to executive vice president of a savings and loan at Newport Beach's Newport Center, a place just a short distance--but countless cultures--away from the seedy area of downtown Santa Ana.

Less than a year ago, Banner could not have even imagined standing on that dark street corner helping the homeless. But that was before she joined SPIN (Street People In Need), a group of 90 parishioners of Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in Newport Beach, who twice a week--rain or shine--pack food and clothing to distribute it among the homeless.

"This is a reminder that it can happen to any of us. All it takes is two or three bad breaks," Banner said.

These are not your traditional do-gooders, but honest-to-goodness members of Orange County's economic elite. These 90 parishioners are not the sort one would expect to habitually drive by shadowy street corners, much less stop to talk to--or assist--street people.

Yet, together, they have found a way to make a difference, to help the poor.

Samuel W.H. Boyce, an advertising executive and self-appointed leader of SPIN, said the SPIN project is not just to serve the homeless but also to drive home to the many upscale, gentrified folks within his parish what life is really like for the poor.

"This is a workshop in poverty. We are learning about the conditions on the street," Boyce said.

But members of SPIN can help street people, not just because they can afford to care consciously, but also because they can contribute their dollars, said Scott Mather, himself a crusader for the homeless who helped organize SPIN after meeting Boyce more than a year ago.

"Money is available to these people and that helps their efforts greatly," said Mather, an independent insurance agent who lives in Costa Mesa.

SPIN is one of about 10 private charitable groups that frequently try to provide food and clothing for the people living on Orange County streets, according to Mather. There also are about a dozen shelters that provide temporary living quarters for about 500 people nightly, but social service organizations estimate that there about 6,000 homeless in Orange County.

15,000 Meals

Since SPIN was first organized last March, the group has served an estimated 15,000 meals, mostly to a core group of about 500 homeless people. Although SPIN members vary their route on occasion, they usually serve their twice weekly meals outside the Salvation Army and the Orange County Rescue Mission, both in Santa Ana, and Hart Park in Orange.

When the project began, only Boyce and three other people pledged to join. But those initial members got their church hierarchy to provide seed money to begin the twice-weekly dispersal of food and clothing. One collection at Easter Mass last year netted $3,500. Volunteers then collected another couple of thousand dollars and the street mission was launched.

Since then, SPIN has grown to include about 90 volunteers--lawyers, teachers, business people are among them. In that time, they have raised another $17,000 for the mission, including $10,000 taken in at a special church collection at Thanksgiving.

Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, about a dozen or so of the volunteers gather in the church hall to prepare food bags. For precisely the cost of $1.02, Boyce said, the group can pack a sandwich, a piece of fruit, a cup cake and juice into the lunch sack.

Old Delivery Bus

After 200 bags or so are prepared, about eight or 10 of the volunteers jump back into their Mercedes Benzes and Jaguars and head home. Five others crowd into a tattered Volkswagen bus that Boyce bought last year, and drive to Santa Ana and Garden Grove to disperse the food and clothing.

For Banner, who tries to go out into the streets once a week, her involvement in SPIN has ignited a personal transformation that she said has not only heightened her awareness of the poor's problems, but has given her the confidence to feel comfortable around the homeless.

When Banner joined SPIN about five months ago, it was at a time when the 35-year-old woman felt a need to help others. She was getting over the breakup of a personal relationship and several parishioners had provided her emotional support during her ordeal.

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