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Around the Valley

'I don't think we'd survive if we had to sleep out there tonight.'

February 08, 1989|T. W. McGARRY

It was 6:34 p.m. Monday, and Dearlo Williams was staggering around the ornamental howitzer on the front lawn of the National Guard armory in Van Nuys, howling at the darkness and the bitter wind.

Drivers flowing past on Victory Boulevard, snug in their autos, were deaf to Williams' shrieks.

"I got diabetes. I get seizures! You gotta voucher me. Aaaaaaaaaooooooowwww! I'm not going to take this. Aaaaaaoooooowwww!"

Vans from charitable organizations, loaded with more homeless street people like Williams, poured into the armory's parking lot. With the wary quickstep of those who know from experience that street theater can be a fuse burning toward heavy trouble, they hurried past him.

Inside, the armory of the 3rd Battalion of the 144th Field Artillery was being converted into a shelter for the homeless.

On cold nights, the state allots armory space to organizations that care for the homeless. It was already down to 41 degrees, and it was clear the night was going to bring cold that would have brass monkeys suing for workman's comp.

Five National Guardsmen in camouflage fatigues hung out in an office just inside the door while workers from Los Angeles Family Housing, a charitable group, took charge of the homeless.

"When they began the program last year, we were open one night and only one guy showed up," said Capt. John Smith, who heads a cadre of 12 full-time Guardsmen who run the armory. "But they got more organized and we've been open 35 nights now since Dec. 15."

The cold wave had driven increasing numbers of the homeless to the armory--66 on Friday, 83 Saturday and 105 Sunday.

Michael Childress, the shelter director, said one of his problems involves dealing with protests--like Williams'--over distribution of vouchers good for a night in a motel with a private bath, hot water, TV and privacy--amenities rare in artillery armories.

"We only get about four or five vouchers a night, and we save them for families--mothers with little children--or people with really serious physical disabilities, in wheelchairs or something like that.

"Of course, these guys know we have the vouchers, and they want to get into a motel. Some of them have some sort of physical condition. Some others just want to get what they can. It's pretty hard to tell one from the other, but we only have a few vouchers."

Williams had shrugged off an offer by Childress' assistant, Thomas Chandler, to call an ambulance for him and went storming through the door to scream outside.

The Guardsmen, preparing to go home, glanced out of their office occasionally but left the shelter's problems to Childress and Chandler.

A bench blocked the entrance to a hallway leading to vaults where rifles, machine guns and grenade launchers are kept, guarded by strong locks and electronic alarms.

"Part of the deal is that the homeless don't go wandering around that part of the armory," Smith said.

At least one Guardsman stays behind each night the shelter is open--"just to make sure the building is still here tomorrow," said Staff Sgt. Rich Harbo, a part-time Guardsman from Canyon Country who volunteered for the duty.

Chandler and two women, wearing black sweat shirts identifying them as "staff" in large white letters, ran a registration desk. Army-green cots stood in rows on the concrete floor of an airplane-hangar-sized drill practice room, 120 feet by 70.

Tammy Findlay and Clark Fraizer and Laura ("just Laura") sat together.

Laura, 22, grew up in Pacoima. Findlay was raised in Van Nuys, and Fraizer said he graduated from Sylmar High School.

Laura wore a pink sweat shirt with "Mom" in white letters. "It's a present from my 4-year-old son," she said. "I've been living on the streets for two or three years now, and he stays with my mother."

"We had a van but it was destroyed by vandals," said Findlay, who was celebrating her 30th birthday. "It's nice here. Things are under control. It's bad enough living in a van in Pacoima, but it's worse if the shelter's out of control."

Running around their cot was Johnnie Johnson, 18, who went to Van Nuys High. He and a buddy had shucked their shoes to play barefoot basketball at a hoop put in by the Guard staff for lunchtime games.

"I usually sleep, like, behind apartment buildings or wherever," Johnson said. "The cold is ridiculous, man. I don't think we'd survive if we had to sleep out there tonight."

By 11 p.m., it was 39 degrees. There were 112 bodies on cots in the vast room, dimly lighted and filled with the aroma of many feet. Most were asleep under army blankets.

A mother with three children got the motel vouchers. Williams had abandoned his protest and was asleep under the basketball hoop.

Chandler tried to catch some sleep in his chair at the registration desk. A gangly private had been found to relieve Harbo.

Four miles away on Ventura Boulevard, under the bright lights of the La Reina center, John O'Brien settled in for the night on an RTD bench with a thin blanket and a screw-top bottle of wine in a paper bag.

"It's too hard for him to get to a shelter," said a homeless friend. "He can hardly walk."

O'Brien, who has watery, pale blue eyes and a white beard, objected. "I can walk," he said. "I was in the Army. Walked from France to Germany.

"I'll be OK," he said, refusing a ride to the shelter. "I've got the whole universe here with me," pointing to the sky full of frosty stars.

By daybreak, it was 36.

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