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Homeless or Just Fearful, Many Camp Out

January 19, 1994|SUSAN BYRNES and SCOTT GLOVER and SONIA NAZARIO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Evoking images of Depression-era refugee camps, 20,000 people slept outside last night in more than 70 parks throughout the city. Officials say thousands more camped on front lawns and in driveways, parking lots and even median strips.

They huddled against cold and tried to cope with fears and indignities--from aftershocks and the lack of food to roaming derelicts and an encounter with coyotes.

Cars were turned into bedrooms and sheets formed lean-tos in earthquake-ravaged parts of Los Angeles, from the hard-hit San Fernando Valley to neighborhoods scattered from Echo Park to the Westside. Many people simply refused to sleep indoors. Others without shelter did not know when they could return home.

"We don't have money, we don't have anything," said Marta Franco, who sat on shabby blankets in the park outside the Winnetka Recreation Center in the west Valley with her husband and five children.

The earthquake had split the walls and blown out the windows of their two-bedroom apartment nearby. It is likely they will never be able to move back in. They made it to the park with only a suitcase full of clothes, a stroller and the blankets.

Franco, 37, a nurse's aide and the family's sole provider, lifted the lid of a plastic cooler to reveal their entire food supply--a package of hot dogs, a gallon of milk and a nearly empty jar of mayonnaise.

Nearby, dozens of other families were also camped out. Many were in cars they had driven onto the grass. Smoke from small charcoal grills wafted across the park.

It was a cruel deja vu for Franco. In 1976, an earthquake hit her native Guatemala City, leaving her family homeless for more than a month. But Franco said that experience was not as bleak.

"Everything we had was destroyed," she said, "but the Red Cross came and brought food and camping equipment. My mother had a big stove and she was cooking for everybody.

"It was much better than this."

At Griffith Park, about a dozen families camped near the Los Feliz Boulevard entrance. Olga Gonzalez, 29, was there with her husband, Eddy Ortiz, and her five children.

"This is the first time I've slept in a park," Gonzalez said. "I'm scared to death. The children slept, but they too were afraid."

The city Housing Department will dispatch bilingual workers today to try to persuade tenants to return to buildings that have been deemed safe by inspectors. They may not meet with great success, at least right away. One Building and Safety official noted that after the Whittier Narrows quake, it took the intervention of Catholic priests to persuade some renters to go back home.

The two men in Ortiz's camp stayed up all night to protect the children. About 3 a.m., two coyotes came within 30 feet of their tent, but the men held them at bay with sticks, she said.

As Gonzalez spoke, a homeless woman with a large dog came into the camp, rummaging though trash barrels for cans and cursing at the campers. Police occasionally drove past, warning them to be careful with their fires.

The 26 people camped out beneath two towering spruce trees are all relatives and friends, she said, adding that the adults didn't sleep a wink Monday night.

"We'll stay 72 hours," she said. "They say that's when the earth should stay still."

She wouldn't stay longer, she said, because the children have not bathed in two days. Nine children are in the camp, including infants 3 months and 1 month old.

Behind a recreation center in a Granada Hills park, Suzanna Noyer, 23, and Donna Murillo, 29, stretched out on sheets of cardboard with their combined total of eight children, their husbands and Noyer's mother. All 13 of them live in a Granada Hills house, much of which they had seemingly brought with them.

There were stacks of blankets, a grill, several different kinds of cold cereal, wooden outdoor chairs, a couple of dogs and various kitchen implements. A sheet, hooked to a pickup truck and a couple of poles, was the only roof above their heads.

"We really could have stayed in the house," said Murillo, "but if there was a bad aftershock, can you imagine getting eight kids out of a four-bedroom house?"

As Murillo talked, her 1-year-old crawled into a patch of pancake syrup that had been spilled onto the cardboard. The older children played on playground equipment next to the closed, badly cracked recreation center, running over occasionally to grab the pancakes Noyer was making on the grill.

"This is the pits," Noyer said, to no one in particular.

In addition to those camping out, at least 4,000 people were sent to homeless shelters by the Red Cross and other agencies, officials from the Los Angeles Housing Department said.

All of those outside were not on lawns and in parks. With couches, milk-crate coffee tables and a television set--powered by a network of extension cords running from an apartment building--Ivan Mora and his neighbors made one corner of the parking lot behind a Lucky supermarket in Reseda feel a bit like home.

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