There are plenty of hard-luck stories at Santa Clarita's first homeless shelter. To find them, though, you have to dig a little harder than you normally would in a gathering of the down and out.
The dozen or so nightly guests in the cavernous former cosmetics warehouse that has been turned into a shelter appear modestly clothed, but not disheveled. Their eyes may dart a bit or bear telltale red streaks, but they lack the hollow, beaten cast of the long-term destitute.
Many of these far-suburban homeless have full-time jobs and drive to the shelter in 1980s or early '90s sedans. Some reject the free set of donated clothes offered to each guest.
"This is just a decent place to stay until we get an apartment," said one spritely woman in stretch pants and a sweatshirt who requested anonymity. "If my boss finds out I'm here, I'm done."
Since it opened early last month as insurance against El Nino rains, the shelter has drawn about a dozen people a night of varying backgrounds. So far, half or more seem to defy the homeless stereotype.
Still, the shelter is drawing criticism from residents who fear it will attract transients--and their attendant drugs, disease and crime--from all over Southern California.
There will be "a never-ending supply of people from all over the state, if not the country, looking for a free ride," read one typical letter to a local newspaper from Henry and Susan Koops. "One need only look at the city of Santa Monica to understand the devastating effect of a similar policy."
The city pays the shelter's utilities and $10,000 in salaries for the two part-time managers employed there between December and March. The rest of its operating costs, including food, clothing, cots and miscellaneous toiletries has been donated by several local religious groups.
The two city workers who team with volunteers to keep the shelter running from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. daily say their job is not to judge people who come in looking for a dry cot and a bathroom.
"Everybody at some point in their life goes through a bad spot," said one of the shelter's managers, Enrique Pulido.
The 25-year-old Canyon Country resident had a taste of adversity last year after he was caught allowing a friend to use a lost credit card he found at work. Pulido said he was convicted of a felony, placed on three years' probation and lost his job at Home Depot, an experience he said humbled him.
While giving visitors a tour of the facility, which sits on a winding, desolate street slightly less than a mile from busy Soledad Canyon Road, Pulido banters with several of those taking shelter there.
"These guys are the bikers," he says, pointing to a room containing three cots, three silver BMX bicycles and the small personal effects of their teen-age owners. "They just go ride bikes all day and then come back and crash here."
Pulido nods at one guest sitting on a cot and asks, "How's the noise in here?"
"Hell of a lot better than in there," the teen replies, gesturing to the main men's bedroom.
Exiting, Pulido explains that the teens had trouble sleeping in the large main room for men because of one guest's incessant snoring. "We figured we had enough space here, so we set them up in a different room," he says.
In the kitchen, a handful of volunteers prepare a basic meal of lasagna and bread sticks served on paper plates and vinyl tablecloths. Some reflect on the opposition to the shelter plan, which got $10,000 in city funding.
"The problem is there, whether you're blind to it or not," says Carolyn Randall, a volunteer through St. Stephen's Episcopal Church. "Do we say to people, 'Too bad you can't get the basic necessities'?"
Nearby, guests having the meal divide themselves into English- and Spanish-speaking groups. Pulido tells the story of Jose, a Mexican laborer who found full-time work unloading Christmas trees at a seasonal sales lot. He found out about the shelter after sheriff's deputies fished him from the Santa Clara River, which he and some friends were crossing when they were swept away by the current.
"It's been good," the upbeat Jose says of his nights at the shelter. "People are real nice."
At the neighboring table sit the sweatshirt-clad working woman and her boyfriend, Todd Clifton, 26, one of the only people there willing to give his full name.
Clifton is a construction worker from South Bend, Ind., who moved to Santa Clarita to be with his girlfriend and tap into the building boom in the rapidly developing city.
Asked if they plan to leave soon, Clifton deadpans, "No, we're going to live here forever."
His girlfriend, who has commuted between the shelter and her job as a manager of a Valencia restaurant, is less glib. Caught in an ugly divorce and custody battle, she says she was afraid to stay with relatives, who might notify her husband of her whereabouts.
Raised in Hancock Park she brought a unique perspective to the shelter.