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Living on the street with faith and hope

February 20, 2009|DANA PARSONS

Thursday was shaping up as a good day for the two people at the foot of the big tree in the Orange County Civic Center. The recent rainy snap had ended, and the sun was out. As a result, their shoes were starting to dry out. Better yet, it was 11 a.m., and not a single passerby had made a wisecrack about them being homeless.

They hadn't heard about the 48-year-old man who had killed himself 24 hours earlier just five miles away at Crystal Cathedral, but it was as if they knew him. They knew him because he apparently lost the ongoing battle to maintain hope -- perhaps the most sought-after commodity among people who don't have a roof over their heads.

And that's what I wanted to ask the two people under the tree. How do street people keep their spirits up when daily existence seems to be a gantlet of reason after reason to give up?

"Two words I can think of," says Larry Bradley, a wiry Oklahoman pushing 61 and otherwise known as "Blue" because of his eyes. "Faith and hope. Faith that things can change and hope that it will."

Noting that the man chose Crystal Cathedral as the place to kill himself, Blue theorizes, "He probably was a man of faith, but he lost hope in himself and his abilities."

The woman next to him nods. She didn't want to be identified ("My kids worry enough about me out here"), but Blue says she's known as "Mom" to most people in the unofficial Civic Center encampment for the homeless. "She's taken a lot of them under her wing and doesn't let them go without," he says. Which means that she's constantly securing things for people and helping them work with the system and counseling them in their time of need.

But even Mom has her moments. "Some days I've woken up and said, 'Oh my God, I'm not getting up. I'm going to find a train and just stand in front of it.' "

Those thoughts vanish when she focuses on her kids and grandkids, and she resumes the struggle to keep herself in the game. Now 49, she says she's been homeless off and on for about six years, but has worked over the years and has applied for 153 jobs "from Warner to 17th Street" in Santa Ana, without success.

I ran another thought by them.

While society might consider homeless people to be generally without hope, is it possible they actually exhibit more hope than the rest of us, given their refusal to surrender to their dire circumstances?

"The survival instinct is part of it," Blue says, "but I think it comes from the way you were raised. I was raised not to give up, ever. It was something instilled in me as a child, and it's still with me today at almost 61 years old."

No quit in him, he says, even though he lays claim to lung cancer, heart disease, bone disease and a recent blood pressure reading of 188/132.

"But I know," he says for emphasis, "I don't hope, I know I'm going to get through this situation, and I refuse to believe otherwise."

They both believe the government and society in general don't care about their plight. They say people are more vulnerable to homelessness than ever before and that the current economy may force people to realize how tenuous their hold on security really is.

Here at the Civic Center, members of the fluctuating homeless community help one another out.

Squabbles occur and some see daily signs of mental illness, but people make allowances and try to help. "They need to know somebody cares," Blue says.

If nothing else, they're bonded by loss. Big-ticket items are obvious -- home, family, job, transportation -- but Mom says smaller losses hurt too.

Like not having family photos with you.

So, does every morning begin with a personal pep talk? A mantra?

"It depends," Mom says. "My shoes are still wet, so are my socks. I woke up this morning with my feet freezing, thinking to myself, 'God, what I'd give for a pair of socks.' "

And she's the one helping others?

"It can be depressing," she says, "especially when people walk by and look at you like [she makes a face], but there are times when something good happens and you know things can always change."

What is a good thing? Thinking, she doesn't answer right away. "Gosh, I don't know," she says. "Seeing someone you haven't seen for a long time, knowing they're OK."

A cabinetmaker by trade, Blue has been on the street for four months. Having grown up in Oklahoma, he remembers dinners when his family of five would share a can of pork and beans.

Perhaps it's crass of me to ask why people who seem so bereft of hope keep on keepin' on. But Blue and Mom don't seem offended by the subject matter.

In the same way people with families living in comfortable residential neighborhoods get by, so do these folks in this place surrounded by 9-to-5 government buildings.

"It's home," Mom says of the encampment. "It's where we keep faith alive."

That's it, Blue says, again. It's all about faith and hope.

"I have a goal to get back and finish off my life in Oklahoma, where I came from," he says. "That right there is enough to give me the drive to get through today. And I'm not talking long-term, either. I'm talking short-term."

--

dana.parsons@latimes.com

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