SANTA ANA — It's 9:30 a.m. and the shaky, cadaverous men in grime-caked clothes who live on the pump islands of the former Buy-Rite gas station on East 1st Street have not yet arisen from their filthy mattresses.
Some, if their bodies will respond, will try to walk the few steps around the corner to the Orange County Rescue Mission by 11 a.m. for the free showers and clean clothes offered each morning.
But if they don't make it by 11, Joe Furey must shut them out. They may not have bathed for many days, and their clothes may be in tatters and soiled with the shiny, indelible grit that comes from living on the streets, and they may be full of stories of fearful nights and quavering days, but the free showers end at 11, and those are the rules.
Furey must do it, he says, to keep the fragile world of the mission from unraveling. If one person bends the rules, the word instantly spreads on the street and soon, Furey says, the mission's atrium would be filled with angry homeless people, telling even more desperate stories, demanding showers, or clothes, or food, or an extra night's free lodging.
"They'll give you a nice story," said Furey, 34, an associate chaplain at the mission who has worked there for 1 1/2 years, "and when I first started here, I had the tendency to buy it and let them in. And they might have a legitimate story. But once you do that, make it a habit to bend the rules, it's amazing; in another 20 minutes, there's two guys wanting the same thing and then it's all chaos. You cannot let them know that you're easy."
Too many needy people. Too much desperation. Too few beds. Not enough food and clothing. Not enough time.
It was in just such a tightly strung atmosphere--where workers walk an emotional tightrope between compassion and the knowledge that many lives are unsalvageable--that Mitch Snyder, the nation's best-known advocate for the homeless, hanged himself last week in a Washington homeless shelter. A firebrand known for his intensity and passion for his cause, Snyder was characterized at the time of his death as a man who had exhausted his inner resources and simply had nothing left to give.
And now, in the center of one of the wealthiest counties in the nation--a social contrast that makes the hardscrabble world around the mission all the more shocking--Furey and his co-workers must face down the same demons that haunted Snyder.
Every day, they must descend into the gray netherworld of the helpless, the hopeless, the sick, the filthy, the broken, the drug-ridden, the alcohol-poisoned. The long, grim litany of the ignored and the forgotten. And each of those homeless people, in some way, has the potential to gnaw at the workers' emotional marrow.
"You have to be called to do it," Furey said. "Because if you're not, you'll burn out real quick. It'll just get to be too much, because people come in here and treat you like dirt. They ask for something and if they don't get it, they'll start calling you names. You just have to try to separate yourself from it and not take it personally. You have to have a real desire in your heart to help mankind, because the rewards just aren't there, not the financial rewards and not the prestige. To do this, you have to believe in \o7 something.\f7 It's literally a life-and-death situation."
Robert Magluyan, administrator and head chaplain and a veteran of nearly five years of work at the mission, said that during his first two years there "the frustrations mounted and I would seek ways to get out. My temper would fly. I'd feel the hairs on my head rise in anger. Here you are trying to do something good for some fellow and he gives you a sob story and you don't know whether to believe it or not and you give him the benefit of the doubt and he turns around and he's laughing at you. It used to get my goat really, really bad."
Today, both Furey and Magluyan say, their commitment to the work has deepened with their religious convictions (the mission is a Christian enterprise, funded solely by private donations). And both say that without those convictions, their jobs would quickly overwhelm them.
"When I first started working here," Furey said, "it was a lot harder on me. There was the pressure of dealing with so many people and \o7 everybody's \f7 hurting. And there's a lot of con out there. If I were to get involved with everybody's problems personally and take it upon my shoulders, it would drive me nuts."
Still, those who work with the homeless cannot help but face the unsettling fact that however much they do, it will not be enough, said Susan Oakson, coordinator of the Orange County Homeless Issues Task Force.