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Seeking Safe Haven

TURLOCK — At 7 o'clock on a cold November morning, Mick Matthews rolls awake in a four-person tent in the middle of a field in the middle of the city.

"We had a start last night, now didn't we?" he asks in his deep Australian drawl, sleep caked in the corners of his eyes.

Long after the construction workers at the next-door subdivision went home, long after the children in the old row houses on the other side of the field closed their eyes for the night, the signaling started. Whistles and whoops in several octaves from as many voices in as many directions traveled around the neighborhood. Signaling to each other or someone else hidden in the dark — an adolescent or gangbanger or drug dealer — in childhood Morse code.

After the whistling stopped, the silence seemed heavy. The tall grass, high between the ties of the nearby railroad tracks, waved in the cool night breeze. With a crash, a pickup jumped off West Avenue onto the railroad tracks. It tore down the rails at 40 mph. The brakes locked, and it slid to a stop. Mick would later say he could feel his heart beating in his throat.

The door to the truck creaked open, then slammed shut. Silence. For five minutes, there was only silence. Then the door swung open with a metal-on-metal screech and slammed again. The truck took off backward down the tracks, sped up West Avenue, toward High Street, and into the night.

"I was a little concerned for a second there," Mick says in the morning. "Thought one of those loonies decided to get his rocks off whooping up on some homeless. Maybe the dude was drunk and took a wrong turn or just needed to take a leak."

He digs around in a pink plastic pencil pouch for loose tobacco and rolling papers. "You have to use your sense of humor out here, not your sense of imagination, or you'll scare yourself to death."

Mick's girlfriend, Marlene — a local woman uncomfortable with using her real name — wakes up next to him after a late night of "shopping," code for a nighttime tour of local donation boxes.

It's an atypical day for the couple. There is an invitation to breakfast at his friend Mike Parker's apartment and, in the evening, perhaps the most anticipated evening in their eight months on the street, the city's cold-weather homeless shelter will open — hot food, a warm bed, friends and maybe even a movie.

Mick and Marlene sit around Parker's cluttered living room table. An outdoor pond pump lies dried and dusty next to bird food and a Chianti bottle with a candle stuffed in the top, wax melted down the neck. "Blue Bike" Mike Roark, Parker's previously homeless roommate of two months, had left for work — walking neighborhoods with satellite TV fliers. In the bedroom, a homeless woman sleeps on a mat on the floor. Parker — a teacher at Turlock Adult School — fries eggs and potatoes and toasts bread on a small George Foreman grill.

"Homelessness is a strands thing," he says. "Like there are strands of kids in a high school. You've got the mentally ill kids, the A-plus students, the college prep kids, you've got the D and F students, you've got the fighters, you've got the druggies, you've got the gang guys, you've got the jocks ... "

"You got the lovers," Marlene says.

"You've got the lovers, yeah. The high school population has strands," he says. "Homelessness is like that, you've got many strands of homeless, so you need to avoid making one statement about 'the homeless' and having it apply to all homeless people, 'cause it won't. Another mistake we make is thinking, 'If you just build this, it will help all the homeless.' That's not true. It will only help a couple strands."

Parker met Mick and Marlene through Community Action and Resources for Empowerment and Sustainability, or CARES Program — operated by California State University, Stanislaus. The program helps the homeless interact with mainstream society — "Where do I get a Social Security card?" "How do I type a résumé?" "Where can I find a meal or a bathroom or a shower?" — and has started homeless community meetings. Organizers believe the communal ideas can help mainstream society help the homeless and the homeless help themselves.

The idea behind Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous is that only someone who has experienced alcoholism or drug addiction can help an alcoholic or a drug addict. Homelessness, many in the Turlock community believe, is the same sort of problem — it takes the homeless to help the homeless.

"About 1,000 people here in Turlock are homeless," Parker says. "They're kind of scuzzy, shifty-looking, without regular access to a washbowl and toilet. Sometimes that's all it takes. This woman in the other room, she's taken a 180-degree turn in the last24 hours. She's been able to take a shower, brush her hair, get some sleep without worrying someone is going to jump her bones, a couple of good meals. Man, she even put on lipstick. She's a different woman,"

"She's starting to care about herself," Mick says.

"Exactly, because she's not out sleeping in Donnelly Park worrying about protecting her backside."

After breakfast, Mick and Marlene ride their bicycles to the United Samaritans Foundation on Broadway Avenue: They call it "Hobo Starbucks." Monday through Friday mornings, the Samaritans offer coffee, juice, milk, pastries, doughnuts and fruit. There are two small showers with 10-minute time limits. There's a closet with racks of donated clothing. The CARES Program rents a building across the street and — much to the consternation of nearby businesses on South Broadway — the two-block span just south of City Hall is a hobo highway every workday morning.

You have to get there early to get a shower. Mick and Marlene don't make it in time, so they rummage through the clothing racks.

Unbuttoning his jacket and vest, Mick shows the room of a half-dozen homeless his T-shirt — the seal of the president of the United States. "I'm very patriotic for not being born an American. I'm a proud Republican," he says. Half the people in the room groan. The other half remain silent. Then a heavyset woman wrapped in a blanket leans toward him with an open hand. "I should slap you," she says; she asks not to be identified.

"Under Reagan and Bush One, the economy seemed to ... well, Reagan really picked us up from the dread looms until '92, when Clinton took over," Mick says. More grumbles.

"Come here," says the woman in the afghan. "You need a slap."

"What? Reagan was the man who put us back in the black (as governor). Then it took the Brown regime three terms to bring it back to the red. It took 12 years of Jerry Brown's economics to put the state in the red. Reaganomics worked. I don't care what anyone says!" he says. The woman in the afghan takes a swipe at him and some others laugh.

Mick leaves the room with a new pair of old sweat pants, a University of California rugby shirt and a big smile.

Across the street, the 11 a.m. leadership meeting between the vocal homeless — like Mick — and CARES volunteers starts. The planned moderator, another homeless man, doesn't show so Julie Fox, the program coordinator, hands Mick an agenda and asks him to open the meeting.

The group discusses starting a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization at the program so the homeless can offer tax receipts for donations — already college students have offered professional clothing for use on job interviews and Monte Vista Chapel has donated umbrellas and rain ponchos. But the paperwork and cost seem almost prohibitive.

Linda Cool — who acts as the group's secretary and has been living in a van with her husband, Terry, for almost a year — asks Stanislaus State Professor Steven Filling about the process: "We want to go under the name The Homeless United in Turlock, The HUT, so that, you know, we can get nonprofit status, and all we need is just about, what, $500, right?"

Filling is a CARES co-founder who wrote the original grant for the program, which is funded through the Department of Housing and Urban Development with copious university support.

"That's sort of the minimum amount for filing fees and assumes we find an attorney that will do the paperwork for nothing, which actually shouldn't be too hard," he says.

"Can't we just do fund-raisers to get the money for the filing?" asks Ce-Ce a young volunteer.

"Yes, you can do fund-raisers," Filling says. "The deal with a nonprofit is you can give receipts. For most people, they're not going to just give you money unless they can get a tax deduction."

After the meeting, CARES closes for lunch. Many of the homeless, including the Cools, Mick and Marlene, sit in front of the building — in their van, on the stoop rolling cigarettes, leaning on the handrail. The United Samaritans Daily Bread Ministries delivers lunch at 10 places throughout the city from noon to about 3:30 p.m. A small group on mountain bikes and 10-speeds heads to the 1:30 lunch drop on South First Street.

At the site, near an old lot with a broken chain-link fence, a young woman with the scabbed and pockmarked face of methamphetamine abuse picks nervously at a tree branch. Another young woman speaks to three small children in Spanish. A middle-aged man with a young boy pulls up in a beat-up Chevy pickup and joins the group. He doesn't like the look of the visitors and their cameras.

"What do you know about this neighborhood?" he asks. "What do you know about the homeless? S---! You know Robert Boyd? Huh? He terrorizes the homeless every chance he gets!"

Boyd has the thankless job of Neighborhood Services supervisor with the Turlock Police Department — he's the man who asks the homeless to move along when property owners complain, scrubs the graffiti off city buildings, tows unregistered vehicles that have sat too long in the public right of way.

"I resent that," says Mel Powell, 66, homeless since 2001. "You can't speak for all the homeless. You can't speak for everyone."

"I'm not talking to you!" the man says.

"Well I'm talking to you," Mel fires back, sitting on a log a few inches off the ground, a plate of spaghetti in his lap. "You can't speak for all of us like that."

After some more huffing and puffing, the man returns to his truck.

"I can't stand that line of thought," Mel said, still waving his finger, "like we're all exactly the same."

"The amount of ignorance in this world," Mick says, "is truly staggering."

Mick and Marlene ride back to The Weeds camp. Both are in high spirits.

"Today, we don't have to hide anymore," Mick says.

"I don't hide from anyone," says Marlene, still not using her real name.

"Well, we'd come in here through the tracks, not walk straight in. But we're leaving our fine weed patch today, hopefully never to return."

Marlene crawls inside the tent and packs her bags. Mick collects the nonrecyclable trash, dirty blankets, old clothes, miscellaneous garbage and throws it into a Rite Aid shopping cart, making three trips to a nearby Dumpster. Marlene sets aside an extra bicycle, a blanket and a few bags for her sister, who also is homeless and moving to a different campsite.

"This is everyday life," Mick says rolling up the four-man tent. "You might think, Mick is tripping, but really, over the last two days, it dawned on me, what seems normal to Marlene and I isn't really normal at all."

Mick and Marlene load four of five bags and the tent into the Rite Aid cart. With his right hand on the side of the cart and bad left hand on the bike handlebars — the residual from a stroke that left him broke and homeless — he pedals out of The Weeds, down West Avenue and into downtown.

After the bulldozing of a shantytown under the Golden State Bridge overpass in the southern part of town, complaints by businesses and homeowners about the homeless skyrocketed. Many homeless were sleeping in doorways of downtown businesses, in Central Park on Main Street and Broadway Park on Broadway Avenue.

Soon after, the city broke up another large encampment, behind the Goodwill Store on a strip of field near the Union Pacific railroad tracks — "Tumbleweeds," the camp was called, because it was camouflaged with the loose-knit brush.

Without services to address homelessness, the city started community meetings with residents, the faith-based community and countywide groups such as United Samaritans. Out of those Community Collaborative meetings the nonprofit We Care was formed to start and manage a cold-weather emergency shelter. The city channeled federal, state and county funds to the group to get it off the ground.

In January 2003, the shelter opened in construction space at Zion Family Worship Center. Two years later, with the rest of the church built, the city purchased a warehouse at400 B St. and moved the shelter downtown.

As the thinking went at the time, it was a perfect location, triangulated between United Samaritans and The Salvation Army and the county services building on Lander Avenue. But the location later stirred much neighborhood controversy.

This season, the shelter opened early, Nov. 20 instead of Dec. 1, because advocates of the homeless and city officials agreed it was too cold to sleep outside. It's set to close April 1.

Through a series of community meetings, neighborhood residents and city officials established a list of shelter rules and regulations. A full-time armed security guard is inside the building and another patrols the neighborhood in a car. The shelter opens every day at 5:45 p.m. and no homeless are to be in the area until then. Everyone is awakened at 7:45 a.m. and must be off the property by 9 a.m. — the shelter is closed during the day.

Mick and Marlene pull their bicycles and shopping cart down Fourth Street and park in the grass edging the new Harvest Christian Center parking lot. People come and go from the three or four row houses across the street.

"I need a shower in a bottle, babe," Mick says.

Marlene pulls a plastic zippered bag with a dozen little tubes and bottles out of her luggage. "You want to do it here, Mick?"

"I've been sweating and the shirt stinks and I need to take it off," he says. "Am I being indecent?"

He pulls off his shirt and rolls deodorant under his arms, into his hands and on his body. He splashes cologne or after-shave in his hands and rubs it on his face, neck and head.

"Not quite as good as the real thing, but better," he says pulling the new-old Cal rugby shirt over his head. "I won't change my pants," he says.

An hour before the shelter opens, many people are standing in line. The security guard, a retired sheriff's deputy, stands sentry at the door. Inside, volunteers and organizers, people from United Samaritans, the city and a few church groups mill around.

Shelter Manager Laura Ruiz walks outside to welcome everyone. Many of the homeless call her 'Angel.'

"OK, listen up," she says. "Handicapped and women first. No drugs or paraphernalia. If we find them after you have been checked in, you will be asked to leave the shelter. Two bags only. Thank you."

Harold, who has been on the street for several years after a divorce, losing his job and a host of other problems, files in line behind Mick. He declines to give his last name.

Harold: Been waiting in lines all day. I wait in line for a hour to get a ... bus pass, waited in line for an hour to get my prescriptions I called in, waited in line at the pharmacy for an hour on an appointment I called in. Just another day

Mick: in line

Harold: That's right, in line.

Mick: But this is the most important line of the day.

Harold: I wouldn't say that.

Mick: I would.

Harold: I need those drugs pretty bad.

When Harold started showing up at the CARES Program in September, his skin was translucent, he was emaciated and didn't talk very well. He hobbled. After some prodding, he went to a doctor and was diagnosed with diabetes.

Mick: He could hardly walk. Harold the ironworker could hardly walk.

Harold: I went to Emanuel. and they said, "You're malnutritioned."

Mick: Harold, man, you look like a 180-degree turnaround.

Harold: I'm 35 pounds heavier.

After 20 minutes, Mick is in the warehouse doorway. The security officer pats him down, two volunteers in latex gloves go through his two bags — one is put on a shelf for storage, the other he is allowed to bring to his bed.

Sixty-two beds, 18 inches apart, in two rows of two run down each side of the warehouse. About 30 people shuffle into the shelter. Cold and hollow, it is more like an airplane hangar than anything else — the concrete slab floor at boxcar height from the days when an active railroad spur cut through the area.

On one end there are a few desks for administration and tables for food; on the other a big-screen TV, a rack with paperback novels and storage bins stuffed with pillows, blankets and sheets.

Soon, the people get in another line. Maria Ramos, a housing specialist with the city who works with the homeless almost every day, bought the pizza, soda and some cookies for dessert. All the meals at the shelter are donated, many by faith-based and civic organizations, some by big-hearted people such as Ramos.

Laura, the shelter manager, says the blessing: "Lord, I just want to let you know I'm real grateful for what you've done for this shelter and how you've brought all these people together."

After dinner, many of the homeless fill out shelter registration paperwork, part of which enters their information in the Homeless Management Information System, a county-run database that aims to keep track of the hard-to-identify population.

Debbie Yvanes, the shelter supervisor, plays the shelter rules on the TV.

An employee with Stanislaus County Services Agency since 1989 and a single mom, Debbie, like many of the shelter workers, says there's nothing she'd rather do. "I was on aid before I started with the county after a bad car accident and a bad divorce," she says. "After being on aid and receiving what the system had to give, then it was time to give back. You can't just continue to receive. You have to give back."

Mick calls Debbie "the taskmaster" because she's often the one enforcing the rules —9 p.m. lights out, cigarette breaks are over, time to clean up, et cetera.

"We have to go by the book," she says. "It's chaos if we don't follow the rules."

Debbie puts the Robin Williams movie "RV" into the DVD player. Most of the homeless hunker down in their beds.

Laura and Mick sit in a pair of camping chairs and catch up. Many of their friends from last year haven't shown up. They are worried about Cathy.

"There's a young lady named Cathy," Mick says. "She's a loner. She doesn't talk to anybody. 'Do you have a light?' 'Do you have a smoke?' That's it. I refused to give her anything unless she said 'please' and 'thank you.' I mean, she would take your cigarette lighter from you, then throw it back at you. I mean throw it at you. Just plain rude.

"The thing with Cathy, though, there was a time last year, under the overpass there, Steve Harris took her under his wing. Cathy was camped way down at the end. She wouldn't join the group. She came back in the morning and she had been beaten terribly the night before. She looked terrible. We were worried whether she was raped or not. She wouldn't talk to anyone about it. She was always a little bit different, but she went a lot different after that. Then she just disappeared."

"Mad Dog" Charles walks across the shelter to the bin of bedding. Someone hands him a pair of slippers for his bare feet — pink with smiley faces and three sizes too small. He goes back to his bed, still walking like the soles of his now-slippered feet burn as they touch the ground.

"That's my little puppy dog," Mick says. "He's a good little puppy, Mad Dog, but he needs what he can't get here."

Someone calls for the last cigarette break of the night and much of the shelter clears out. Terry and Linda Cool are tucked into separate beds at opposite ends of the shelter and fast asleep — the first night in a bed after months of sleeping in the front seat of their van.

Steven is nowhere to be seen; he spends the night in his hovel off First Street. Sammy is probably in his Dumpster and Charles is camped somewhere in his giant black tent with his chow-pit mix Emmitt Smith. Blue Bike Mike is on the couch at Mike Parker's apartment and Parker is in his bed. Marlene takes a bed across the shelter, on the side for women. There are no children.

"The biggest problem is people don't understand," Mick says, turning down the threadbare sheets and thin woolen blanket. "You have to live it to understand. No one will really understand the whole situation until they live it."

Debbie turns off the lights, and the light from the TV fills the room. She turns the volume down a bit. "Good night, boys and girls," she says. A chorus of 'good nights' echoes through the warehouse. Someone says, 'We love you.'

Mick stretches his arms and cracks his knuckles.

"We don't have to deal with those elements outside anymore," he says. "We're inside, inside a nice, safe, warm building and it may be a warehouse, a warehouse full of beds, but it's inside. Tomorrow we won't wake up with moisture on us. When I roll over on my pillow, I won't have to worry about if it's wet.

"Marlene says to me, 'No more stress.' And it's true. I've been counting the days, bud. For the first time in awhile, I feel good. I really do."

The next morning, the lights flip on about 7, and by 8:30 most of the homeless have left or are outside puffing the first cigarette of the morning. Mick and Marlene huddle in the cold wind.

He rolls a cigarette, hands it to Mad Dog, and lights it for him. "Mick, Mick, Mick," Mad Dog says, "thank you, thank you, thank you." He turns in his hospital pants and stalks off into downtown, slouching toward Main Street, his legs kicking wildly with each and every step.

The heels of his feet hang off the end of the small, pink, smiley-face slippers. "You be a good little puppy!" Mick yells. Crossing over toward Lander Avenue, Mad Dog arches his back and howls at the morning moon.

The groups laughs. Some rub their cold hands together and drag on stubby, fresh-rolled cigarettes.

"Well, I haven't heard from Mr. Parker this morning," Mick says. "Hobo Starbucks anyone?"