Down-and-out by the river
While homeless campsites along the Santa Ana send Orange County officials scrambling for solutions, some ministries look for change in campers’ hearts
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Every morning, Brian Kelly woke up along the Santa Ana River with one thought in his mind: Where to get his next meth fix? He would walk and walk along the river trail, wandering from city to city, tent to tent, looking for the next “friend” who would invite him into his tent to P&P (“party and play”)—street lingo for getting high and trading sex.
Kelly was born to a meth-addicted mother who placed him for adoption. He led a comfortable childhood in Anaheim Hills, a wealthy community in Orange County, Calif., until someone offered him a meth pipe at a party. Kelly took a puff and was hooked. To feed his meth addiction, which he says cost him up to $8,200 a day, Kelly dropped out of culinary school, began dealing in drugs, and hung around seedy motels, selling his body to any stranger who nodded or waved a wad of cash at him. Eventually, cut off from his family, Kelly wound up at the Santa Ana River Trail, where a few scattered tents were burgeoning into a free-for-all -campground for the homeless.
For three years Kelly, then in his early 20s, partied and played by the river. To bathe, he soaked a towel in the restrooms of fast-food restaurants and rubbed himself down. He was too proud to accept free food, so he dug around trash cans, devouring whatever edible-looking hamburger or chicken wings he found. His weight whittled from 180 to 120 pounds, and he was dehydrated, delirious, and fatigued. Yet something urged him to continue this lifestyle: “I thought, ‘Yay, this is fun!’”
Kelly represents a significant challenge in the ongoing debate over homeless encampments: What to do with someone like Kelly who’s unable or unwilling to accept help? How do you enforce law and order while preserving his life and humanity? And how do you force citizens to accept new homeless shelters in their communities when the dominant image of a homeless person is an able-bodied, drug-addled, jobless, unhinged addict?
With more questions than answers, the issue has turned heated and divisive in Orange County, where about 4,800 people are homeless. The homeless population in this high-cost region of Southern California has been growing 5 to 7 percent annually over the last five years, outpacing the county’s availability of affordable housing, detox centers, or emergency and transitional shelters.
Compared with Los Angeles County’s staggering homeless population of 58,000, the challenge in Orange County seems much more manageable. But like LA, Orange County has a long track record of ignoring, quick-fixing, and baton-passing its homelessness problem. As more and more people set up encampments along riverbeds and sidewalks, a tussle has grown between county and city officials, neighbors, and the homeless.
The spark of contention began at the once-beautiful trails hugging the Santa Ana River, which flows from the San Bernardino Mountains and winds through Orange County. Over the last several years, the river trail—a 30-mile-long, 12-foot-wide asphalt ribbon that once streamed with runners, walkers, and cyclists—morphed into a polluted, lawless Homeless City. At one point, about 1,200 people camped out along the trail in tents and tarps, some even decking out their alfresco residences with barbecue pits, chandeliers, and a putting green for mini-golf games.
Ironically, the homeless population shifted to the river because of anti-camping ordinances that criminalize loitering or sleeping in a public place in most of Orange County’s 34 cities. The laws meant the homeless were constantly shuffling from one place to another, collecting a roster of fines they could not pay. Then they discovered the Santa Ana River Trail: There, a peculiar jurisdictional tangle allowed them to camp without fear of incarceration and fines.
The homeless felt safer at the river, but the neighbors didn’t. People who once enjoyed the river trail complained about unleashed dogs, piles of trash and excrement, fistfights, vulgarities, home invasions, and carjackings. At the last cleanup, the county picked up 215 tons of trash; 1,165 pounds of hazardous waste including feces; and 5,115 needles.
Fed up, more than 15,000 residents signed a petition last year demanding back their recreational space. The authorities listened: They sent nonprofit outreach teams to offer the river residents housing and shelter. For those people who refused help, the county threatened eviction and arrest.
Kelly was one of hundreds who rejected help. He remembers the outreach team approaching him, and remembers how clean they smelled. When they stooped down with their white-toothed smiles, Kelly shifted his gaze. When they sat next to him and offered sandwiches, he shrank away. “I’m fine,” he snapped. “This is my home. I don’t need help.” He distrusted their friendliness—“What’s the catch? What do you want from me, really?”—but he was also “just so twacked out” that he couldn’t comprehend what was happening.
When the county decided to forcibly remove the 1,000 or so individuals still remaining along the river and in the Orange County Civic Center plaza, a federal judge entered the scene. Homeless advocates filed a lawsuit in federal court on Jan. 29 to halt the evictions and prevent three cities—Anaheim, Orange, and Costa Mesa—from enforcing anti-camping laws when they have no plans to provide adequate shelter for the homeless. U.S. District Judge David O. Carter granted a temporary restraining order barring authorities from clearing out the river trail and held an unorthodox hearing at a packed courtroom in Santa Ana, where he grilled officials on their plans, or lack thereof.
During that 10-hour hearing, Carter furrowed his brows and told county officials: “You guys are not moving fast enough. … This should have been addressed years ago.” Pointing to a report that the county had accumulated $700 million of unspent funds that could have assisted the homeless, Carter said, “It’s time for action now. I’m done with paperwork, I’m tired of this ‘we can’t get it done’ nonsense, I’m done with chipmunking money.” This isn’t just an isolated problem, he reminded city leaders: The overnight exodus of 1,000 homeless people would affect all 34 cities in the county. If officials couldn’t come up with a plan to expand shelter services, Carter suggested he would block enforcement of anti-camping laws until adequate shelter was available.
“I’m done with paperwork, I’m tired of this ‘we can’t get it done’ nonsense, I’m done with chipmunking money.”
Under such pressure, Orange County provided more beds for the homeless in one day than it had in the previous five years. It offered motel rooms for 30 days, plus food and services. Almost 700 people from the river accepted. But by the end of the 30-day motel program, only half had accepted services and shelter. Others declined, disappeared, or were kicked out for improper conduct.
Meanwhile, county officials scrambled to figure out their next move. They dispersed homeless individuals willing to accept help into mental health programs, emergency shelters, clinics, or interim housing, but most of these facilities are concentrated in a few cities, and they were running out of beds. Board of Supervisors Chairman Andrew Do told me that without sufficient shelter and housing throughout the county, “we’ll just be chasing the homeless population from one city to the next.” Money isn’t the problem: If none of the 34 cities of Orange County is willing to open its doors, “I can sit on a billion dollars and not be able to do a thing.”
And that’s what’s happening: The county earmarked $20 million to build a new mental health crisis center in Garden Grove, but the city suddenly pulled out of the deal. When county supervisors proposed moving 400 of the riverbed transients into three temporary tent shelters to be erected in Irvine, Huntington Beach, and Laguna Niguel—all affluent cities—residents howled.
“Absolutely not!” Parissa Yazdani, a 29-year-old Irvine resident, told me. “I know some people want help, but I also know many who don’t, and I won’t put my own family in jeopardy.” As she said this, she watched her two young kids run around the playground at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, where families picnic, stroll, and do yoga on emerald-green lawns.
Yazdani, a business owner, single mother, and daughter of an Iranian Revolution refugee, said she moved to Irvine because of its reputation as one of the safest cities in the nation. As a kid growing up in Reno, Nev., she used to find condoms and needles at her school’s playground, and she doesn’t want that for her own children. She said her ex-boyfriend was a homeless drug addict for years until the police found him in the gutter with needle marks: “This whole thing scares me, because how many of him will be at that tent shelter?”
Service providers told me public fear of the homeless makes it almost impossible for elected officials to build shelters without facing threats of recalls. About a week after county supervisors announced the tent shelter plan, hundreds of Irvine residents packed into two dozen charter buses and pulled up at the Orange County Civic Center to wave posters that read, “NO TENT CITY” and “Solutions, NOT tents.” People also crammed into city council meetings to demand that their leaders come up with a better long-term solution, one that’s far away from their kids’ schools.
Officials from Irvine, Huntington Beach, and Laguna Niguel decided to sue the county. One city councilwoman echoed the sentiment of many when she said, “Don’t move your problem … and put it here.” Another councilman declared, “There’s not enough money, anywhere—anywhere!—to take care of people who do not want to take care of themselves.” One Republican congressman suggested busing the homeless to the front lawns of California’s Democratic leaders.
Faced with such opposition, county supervisors withdrew their tent shelter proposal. They still have no solution for the homeless.
While leaders and citizens jostle for answers, Orange County Rescue Mission (OCRM) in Tustin continues to do what it’s been doing for 52 years: helping the least, the last, and the lost. At OCRM, residents typically stay for 18 to 24 months and are required to participate in group sessions, counseling, and chapel each week. They work with case managers to set up personalized goals and gain life skills and job training so they can find employment.
Many who arrive at OCRM suffer from mental illness or substance abuse, and some are victims of domestic abuse or trauma. Some graduate from the program transformed and self-sufficient, while others fail to complete the program. Many come back a second or third time until everything finally clicks.
Advocates are right to say the homeless are human beings who deserve compassion, but concerned residents are also right to say some homeless people reject compassion and cling to personal vices. Quick-fix solutions don’t address both sides. “There’s no silver bullet,” said OCRM President Jim Palmer. “We have to go back to the heart issue.” And heart change is a slow, intentional, love-fed process.
Deborah Leet, 54, had that heart change. Two years ago, she dwelled in a fog of depression and self-pity. Every day she sat on a bench in front of a laundromat, sipping vodka out of a Gatorade bottle and watching life bustle about her. She slept every night in an alley behind the laundromat, often without a tent or sleeping bag.
Leet had lived in Orange County all her life. She never did drugs, didn’t binge drink, didn’t smoke. She used to drive by homeless people begging for money or food, and she would snort, “Just go get a job!” For 23 years she lived with her boyfriend in Tustin, a middle-class city bordering Irvine, until one day the boyfriend left her for another woman and sold their house. Grief-stricken, Leet quit her job and spent several days crying in a motel. She was down to her last $200 when a homeless man invited her to stay with him and his friend behind the laundromat.
As months passed, Leet became so weak she couldn’t walk, and her feet swelled so much that she left her shoelaces untied. Passersby pitied her and brought her food, blankets, and hygiene products, but she refused to check into a shelter, unable to discard the hope that her ex-boyfriend might return for her.
But the harsh street life finally drilled through her stupor. The police were constantly rustling up the homeless, and one night, while Leet sat in a tent behind the Tustin Library, a police officer told her once again that she had to leave. Exhausted, she began bawling: “God, if You’re real, I need to know. I don’t know what to do.”
God answered by sending an OCRM staff member named Jesus to her. By then, Leet was so weak that Jesus had to carry her to the van and take her to the hospital. A doctor said that had she waited two more days, she would have died from a heart attack. When she was finally stable enough to enter OCRM, Leet still felt lonely and sad, but for once, she felt safe, because she knew then that God had heard her.
That was Aug. 22, 2017. Today Leet works in OCRM’s kitchen, preparing hot meals for other homeless shelters. “I know now why I went through all that, because you have to suffer and be in that darkness to find God, to be in His light,” she says. “He was always with me. I just had to go through that process to get here.”
Brian Kelly too hit the bottom when, after three years at the river, something clicked in his consciousness: “I’m tired of this. I don’t want to live homeless anymore, I don’t want to be a whore anymore.” He called a family friend, who drove him to OCRM. The day he entered OCRM, on Feb. 22, 2018, a staff member swung a badge around Kelly’s neck and said, “Smile for your badge, because you’re not homeless anymore. Welcome home, Brian.”
It took a while for Kelly, now 28, to feel at home. His first week, he slept on the floor of his room in a fetal position without a pillow or blanket. When he first entered OCRM’s chapel, Kelly half-expected himself to “burst into flames.” Remembering how his Catholic church had shunned him for his homosexuality, he stood in the corner with his arms folded, thinking, “Screw this, I don’t need God in my life.”
One day, Kelly told his case manager everything he had done. The case manager listened, then said, “Jesus Christ loves you no matter what happened, and He still loves you.” Kelly still weeps when he recalls that moment: “Wow, I actually needed to hear that. After all that bull I put God through, He still loves me? Wow.” Kelly soon professed faith in Christ. He still craves meth, but tells himself, “Not today. No, no.” Today, he continues his program at OCRM.
Stories like Leet’s and Kelly’s are what keep old-school organizations such as OCRM relevant and optimistic, even as Palmer looks at the chaos that’s unfolding in Orange County.
“I’m watching it every single day,” he said. “We’re in a situation that’s very new in this level and intensity, so I honestly don’t know what’ll happen.” But, he added, “We’re not hopeless at all.”
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