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This couple already had `for poorer'

Hollywood homeless agency helps with housing, employment and even arranges a wedding. `Only good now,' groom says.

December 26, 2006|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

In many ways, it was a wedding like any other.

The bride looked resplendent in her golden gown as she walked through the Christmas afternoon sunlight toward the makeshift altar. The groom, dressed in a black tuxedo, didn't try to hold back the smile as he watched her approach.

But it was the vows that made it clear this was no typical ceremony.

For better or for worse. For richer or poorer.

"With everything we've been through -- no more," the groom added before slipping the ring on the bride's finger. "Only good now."

The bride nodded, a tear sliding down her cheek.

Ken DeFusco and Kimberly Soto, both 40, met six years ago when life was going well. DeFusco was working as a chef and Soto was earning good money as a bookkeeper.

They dated for several years. Once, DeFusco tried to break it off, moving to New York. He returned after a year.

"I missed her too much," he said.

In September, their lives began to crumble. Soto was laid off. A month later, DeFusco lost his job. Soon after, they were kicked out of the house they had been renting.

"It all happened so quickly," Soto said. "It was this horrible, horrible, domino effect. We lost everything. Never, ever did I think I would be homeless."

DeFusco spent the little money he had saved on cheap hotel rooms. Within days, they were broke.

For a few nights, they walked the streets, DeFusco said, too afraid to lie down to sleep. A Norwalk building manager let them spend nights in the offices.

Then, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, DeFusco went wandering the streets of Hollywood with the vague notion of tracking down some old friends in hopes that they could help the couple.

On Schrader Boulevard, he came across a line of homeless people waiting for a hot meal from the Food on Foot charity.

DeFusco was near his breaking point. He hadn't showered in days. His clothes were beginning to tatter. He was wearing shoes two sizes too small. He asked a volunteer if he could have a meal.

"I told him, 'Instead of waiting in line for hours, why don't you come talk to Jay and hear what he has to say,' " recalled Mario Rudy "Sleepy" Vargas.

Every Sunday for the last 563 weeks, Food on Foot founder Jay Goldinger has stood in Hollywood parking lots overseeing a crew of volunteers as they hand out chicken dinners to hundreds of homeless people.

About six years ago, frustrated with the sense that he wasn't helping people get their lives back on track, he started a smaller work-for-food program.

In exchange for picking up trash from area shopping malls and Hollywood streets, Goldinger gives the 40 to 50 workers in the program vouchers for groceries and meals.

There is no room for excuses. Workers must show up every morning -- seven days a week -- at 7 a.m. to pick up their trash bags.

Goldinger gets those who work for two months without a misstep into a hotel or the apartment the charity rents and helps find them a job. Goldinger figures that about 150 people have gone from destitute to self-sufficient since he started the work program.

"He will go through a wall for you," DeFusco said. "But in turn, you don't get anything handed to you. You have to earn everything."

Goldinger took DeFusco and Soto into the program. Every morning, the couple rode a 4:45 a.m. bus to make it to Hollywood on time. After about a week, when the couple mentioned to Goldinger that they had decided to get married, the three struck a deal. In addition to the food vouchers, Soto and DeFusco would also work for their wedding.

And so it was.

Moments before they welcomed the hundreds of homeless waiting in line for a meal and a sleeping bag at the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, the dozens of volunteers gathered around DeFusco in the parking lot.

When Soto, who will take DeFusco's last name, approached, escorted by her two daughters from a previous marriage, a collective 'ahhh' rippled through the crowd. Their kiss sent up a roar of cheers.

Food on Foot, which received contributions from the Times' Holiday Fund, paid for the rings, the gown and the tuxedo. Goldinger also got DeFusco a full-time job as a security guard and is close to getting Soto back to bookkeeping in the coming weeks. The charity is paying for a motel until the two can save enough for an apartment.

And as for a honeymoon?

"Nope," DeFusco said. "Tomorrow, I'm back to work."

joel.rubin@latimes.com

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