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Return To The Unseen O.C.

A homeless man camps outside the Santa Ana Civic Center.

Keeping the O.C. Tidy, One Bus Pass at a Time

By Tara Graham


You've seen him before: the middle-aged man with a tan, weather-beaten face shaded with grey stubble sitting idly on a bench in some public space during the middle of the day. He's jobless, carless and homeless, so he's neither coming nor going. He's just sitting.

Today, he's found himself a seat in Santa Ana's Civic Center. The sun beats down from high overhead, as the morning rush of commuters slows. The man hasn't the money for sun block, so he's improvised. From his tennis shoes to his loose-fitting jeans, long-sleeved shirt and ball cap, his body is covered from head-to-toe in clothing. It's a necessary fix.

He is, after all, seated smack in the middle of his living room. Or so he says.

"The main thing to remember about living here is keeping your area clean," Bill Jenkins says with a knowing nod. Bags of bedding and small portable carts of belongings clutter the row of public benches where Jenkins and about 20 others camp out during the day and sleep at night.

Their "home" is located in downtown Santa Ana, directly outside the government offices that oversee the fifth richest county in the country. Santa Ana may be Orange County's power hub, but with a population that's nearly 80 percent Hispanic or Latino American and a median family income of around $40,000 per year (which is only half that of the county), the city doesn't measure up to the O.C.'s reputation for upper middle class suburban living.

The city also happens to be where a majority of the O.C.'s homeless congregate. Whether that's intentional or not is up for debate.

Students on the UC Irvine campus have wondered for years why the homeless folks they encounter every so often in nearby neighborhoods seem to disappear quickly. Campus rumor has it that local police officers waste no time ushering homeless transients into their vehicles to promptly uproot the needy from Irvine and drop them off in nearby Santa Ana.

The Irvine police department did not return calls when asked to respond to the accusation.

"It's tough to prove," says Benny Medrano, the assistant director of the Isaiah House, a Catholic Worker community in Santa Ana that provides shelter and warm meals to the homeless. "But you go to Irvine and you don't see the poverty you see here."

Homelessness is not an everyday encounter in Irvine, and its occurrence was clearly never part of the community master plan as there are no emergency shelters available in the city. There are also no 99 Cent Stores, but a quick Google search generates the addresses of the three store locations closest to Irvine, all of which redirect bargain seekers to Santa Ana. Coincidence?

"Irvine police may drive the homeless to Santa Ana or give out bus passes so the homeless can get here themselves, but that's because this is where the services are," says Leia Smith, a homeless advocate who helps head up the Isaiah House.

The motive behind transporting a generally undesirable and financially burdensome population from one city to another is questionable, but Medrano and Smith believe Irvine police officers are simply trying to point the needy in the direction of help.

"And we've found that they really do care," Medrano says.

But with roughly 21,500 homeless people in Orange County, it's a wonder why there isn't a single county-funded, year-round emergency overnight shelter available to the public. There are a handful of nonprofit organizations that provide around 850 emergency shelter beds every night, but many of these programs are concentrated in the Santa Ana area and only cater to specific groups of homeless individuals, such as those with small children, mental illness or substance abuse problems.

The Orange County Cold Weather Shelter Program additionally provides up to 400 beds every night for the homeless in Santa Ana and Fullerton, but the service is seasonal, lasting only through the winter. This year's program closed its doors on March 31, which is why Jenkins (who doesn't have small children, mental illness or any other special condition) is now back to living on the streets.

A homeless person naps in the Civic Center."I can't sleep over there because that's county property," he says, pointing to a covered space that's 15 feet away. "And I can't sleep on the steps across the street because they supposedly belong to a historic site."

"But this belongs to the city of Santa Ana," he says while pointing to a string of benches in the shade where a number of his cohorts are conversing over cigarettes and coffee. "The city doesn't mess with us here because this is all we have."

A twenty-something woman staying at the Isaiah House (who wishes to remain nameless for employment purposes) says she walked out of an abusive relationship last January. She lived in Fullerton at the time, but relocated to Huntington Beach to crash at a friend's house. When she couldn't stay there any longer, she hopped on a bus to Santa Ana because that's where all the homeless go to get shelter, she heard.

"Most people in Orange County simply don't want homeless folks in their communities," homeless advocate Smith observes. "Every city just makes homelessness some other city's problem."

The Irvine city council has a different perspective. It's more cost efficient for the city to fund organizations that already exist in Orange County, says Christina Shea, an Irvine councilwoman.

"Around $250,000 of community block grant money is allocated to Irvine every year, and we use these local dollars to benefit all kinds of organizations throughout the county," she says. "But the county is ultimately responsible for providing emergency shelter."

The county devised a strategic plan to address homelessness in 1998 that outlined a number of unfulfilled goals. The board of supervisors drafted a new "Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness" earlier this year, which includes the construction of a year-round emergency shelter.

But Smith isn't holding her breath.

"There's just no political will to fix the problem," she points out. "All of those politicians are trying to get reelected, and bringing a homeless shelter to an area is not the best way to win over the voters of Orange County."

But the homeless population in the county has nearly doubled over the last 10 years, and the recent foreclosure crisis and economic meltdown have only worsened the situation.

"We first saw it in our soup lines," Smith says. "Two years ago, our evening meal would attract maybe 100 people around this time of year. We now have over 180 mouths to feed, and that number will double by the end of the month."

The newly homeless of Orange County, by and large, are not battling drugs, mental illness or any other special condition, Smith adds. They are the economically homeless: middle-class folks who just couldn't make ends meet in the last couple years.

"I think there's a mentality in Orange County that nobody here will ever become homeless," Smith says. "And that's simply not true."

The Irvine city council is expecting the city to take a financial hit in the next two to three years, thanks to the economic downturn, Councilwoman Shea says.

The question is: Where are the casualties of that hit going to find help?