The sky over Sylmar showed the barest streaks of sunrise pink. In the frigid mist, I exhaled white steam. It was 6:15 a.m. and 47 degrees, and the night's refugees at the National Guard Armory had already been rousted from sleep and returned to the streets.
I'd been hoping to talk with them on my Monday morning visit to the armory, which operates as an emergency overnight shelter from December to March every year. But shelter clients are up at 5 and out the door by 6, manager Roy Sua told me. "Because at 7 a.m., we have to turn this place back to the military."
About 100 people show up each night for dinner, a shower and a cot. In the morning, they get a sack lunch and a ride out, as employees stack up the metal cots and try to scrub away the smell of rain-soaked clothes with buckets of pine-scented disinfectant.
Where do they go during the day? I asked Sua. Some have jobs or attend classes, he said. "We drop them off at the Orange Line in Van Nuys." Some have cars of their own. Some retreat to the nearby brush-covered hills, littered with muddy encampments.
It's a three-month sunset-to-not-quite-sunrise respite. Better than nothing, but not good enough. An unfortunate metaphor for holiday giving.
You can assess the state of giving by the numbers or by the anecdotes. Both reflect soft hearts and hard choices.
These tough economic times haven't extinguished our spirit of generosity. Three-quarters of Americans say they plan to donate to charities this holiday season. But people are making smaller contributions to fewer groups, squeezed by circumstance into conserving.
My columnist colleagues offered good advice this weekend for sorting through the season's charitable appeals: Finance expert Kathy M. Kristof suggested checking out nonprofits with rating organizations like CharityNavigator.org or Charity-Watch.org. Steve Lopez pointed out that donations solicited by professional fundraising firms often wind up in the companies' accounts rather than the charities' coffers.
I've come across another, GreatNonprofits.org, a consumer review site for nonprofits. Reviews on sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor now influence more than half of online buying decisions, surveys show. That makes sense to me; I rely on Yelp to help find a good restaurant, book a massage, trust my car to a new mechanic.
More than a million nonprofit organizations are listed on GreatNonprofits, from tiny soup kitchens to international advocacy programs. You can type in your interest and location and find a group that needs volunteers or donations, or you can write a review of a group to help steer others to it.
The service was created by Bay Area resident Perla Ni in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. "So many people wanted to help, but all we knew about was the Red Cross," said Ni, publisher then of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, a national philanthropy journal.
Then Ni heard "these amazing stories" from volunteers working New Orleans streets: local groups rescuing trapped residents, treating injuries, walking shell-shocked storm survivors through the maze of red tape toward stability.
"We needed to bottom-up the information," Ni said. "You know there are people in the community who have experienced the help. But how do you surface what you know? Through human stories and real voices...."
Ni talks like that — about "bottoming up" and "surfacing" — because she's a young Stanford grad and a bit of a techno geek. But she's also a real-life example of the effects of charitable giving.
Her family emigrated from China, landing in San Francisco with $100. "My clothes were all used clothes, things people donated to Goodwill," she said. "When I had cavities, I got fillings in my teeth at a nonprofit dental center.
"For so many of us, we live very comfortable lives. We think about giving once a year. We take for granted that so much of what we are able to pay for, other people have to rely on nonprofits to provide. It seems like such a small thing," she said, "but imagine if you couldn't afford to get your children's cavities filled."
That doesn't take much imagining these days. Just ask Robert Mendoza, a man I met on Wednesday night as he and his wife pushed blanket-shrouded strollers toward a Foothill Boulevard bus stop for a ride to the Sylmar armory shelter.
Last Christmas, the family had a two-bedroom apartment and a four-door Toyota. In February he lost his job. In May his wife gave birth to their second child. Last summer they sold the Toyota, lost the apartment and wound up living with two other families in a cousin's small house.
A few nights in the drafty armory might be uncomfortable, but it would make him feel less like a burden to others, he said, readjusting the heavy plastic taped across the baby's stroller to block the wind.
Sua told me later that families like the Mendozas can receive vouchers for three nights in a hotel. "We put them with a case manager for help with a job or food or whatever they need." The shelter and those services are funded by the Santa Clarita Community Development Corp., he said.
I'd never associated the Santa Clarita Valley with poverty, I told Sua. You must not get out much, his look told me. Then again, I hadn't realized that families were living in ramshackle garages and backyard shacks a 10-minute drive away from my cul de sac until I volunteered with the charity MEND two months ago.
Every neighborhood has its own private suffering — and its own unheralded heroes.
They might not be found in charity guidebooks, but I stumble over them from time to time. Maybe you do, too.
Tell us about it. There are still 17 giving days till Christmas.