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HOMELESS : Turning Point Puts a New Spin on Life

March 02, 1995|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a long way from Oconto Falls, Wis., to a Santa Monica homeless shelter, but Jim Mortell made the journey in no time.

Mortell said his slide down the slippery slope of the California Dream was greased by unrealistic expectations of life in the Golden State. Even so, the college graduate who had run a small suburban house-cleaning business still marvels at how far he fell.

At his nadir last year, he spent six months sleeping on a cot next to transients struggling to re-enter mainstream society, substance abusers struggling with sobriety, and mentally disturbed people struggling with reality.

The night before entering the shelter, Mortell attended a movie premiere fund-raiser for the agency that runs it--the Ocean Park Community Center. He had run out of roommates, jobs, money and couches on which to crash.

"I didn't burn bridges," Mortell said. "I ran out of bridges."

The next day, he crossed the threshold of the shelter, Turning Point, where he began to contemplate what he had in common with his new roommates.

"I could rationalize over and over again that I was educated and from a good family, but the point was, I was homeless . . . like the guy snoring next to me," Mortell said.

One thing he knew, they all needed help.

Because others still do, Mortell is telling his story. Dressed in a natty dark suit and tie, it is difficult to picture him on the skids. He looks like what you'd expect from a successful employee of the Brentwood office of the Jon Douglas Co.

Mortell has recently been promoted to a newly created job as a liaison between real estate sales agent and escrow officials. He also coordinates marketing of properties.

Lately, he has been instrumental in a fund-raising event for the Ocean Park Community Center. A fund-raising committee for the agency, Architects for Shelter, commissioned 10 children's playhouses, designed by well-known architects, that will be auctioned off Saturday night at Santa Monica Place, where they are now on display.

It was Mortell's job to get agents from Jon Douglas to sponsor construction of the playhouses, which are being described as art pieces because of their unusual and dramatic designs.

Mortell raised $7,000 from his colleagues, most of whom heard for the first time that he was homeless when he came to work as a secretary at the company eight months ago.

The revelation didn't faze the company. Mortell's boss, Fran Flanagan, who manages the Brentwood office, said his past homelessness doesn't matter; his excellent performance and talent do.

Mortell came to California four years ago for that second chance. His idea, a far-fetched one, he now says, was to work as a "houseman" for rich people--planning parties, shopping, doing errands.

Although he had several such jobs, they didn't pan out, Mortell said, because he had hoped he would share the lifestyle of his employers. Instead he was treated as a servant, which battered his self-esteem.

Other marginal jobs evaporated as quickly as Mortell's savings.

"I knew I was capable of so much more, but I didn't know how to get there," said Mortell, who has a degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin.

In the Turning Point shelter, Mortell said, he had to deal with his own notions of grandiosity and learn humility. "That helped me come back," he said.

During his stay, Mortell learned computer word - processing and worked as a temporary secretary whenever he could. He also continued to run errands, as he had done in the past, for Nancy Mehta, conductor Zubin Mehta's wife. "Nancy Mehta, one night, drove me back to the shelter in her Bentley, Mortell said.

His own transportation problem was resolved more modestly this week. After four years of riding buses around Los Angeles, he got his own wheels -- a 1985 Jetta.

"It means a lot to me to get that car," he said.

For information on the fund-raiser: (310) 399-9232.

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