It was 8 a.m. Saturday morning when two California Highway Patrol officers approached the pair of lean-to shacks along the Riverside Freeway in Anaheim.
Scott and John were still asleep beneath their cover of white plastic and blue tarp. Nearby, Willie Roland and his girlfriend, Kathryn, were making coffee in the cave-like home Willie had carved out beneath the thick, overflow branches of a fallen evergreen. Outside, Chris and Bob were puttering about the grounds.
It was the moment the six people had feared most, but knew someday would come.
They would have to pack up and leave, the officers told them, almost apologizing. They had 2 hours before Caltrans workers would clear out everything.
Willie Packs His Bags
Willie shrugged as he packed plastic bags of clothing and a few pots and pans into his wagon, which was his own contraption made of unmatched bicycle wheels and a discarded shopping cart.
"It was time to move on anyway," he said.
But where would they go? Willie looked hard at his questioner, because he is mostly deaf and needs to read lips.
"Down the road, I guess," he said.
They couldn't go to the National Guard Armory in Fullerton, John said, " 'cause you have to leave first thing each morning. And you can't just keep going to temporary shelters. You lose all your stuff there anyway."
They were among the homeless, estimated at 4,000 countywide by some agencies, who live along freeways in Orange County, out of sight behind foliage and brush. The patch of land along the westbound freeway near the Lemon Street exit had been home to about 20 or so transients over the past year. Now the exit berm was down to just six.
'We Keep the Area Clean'
Chris and John said it isn't fair.
"We work hard to keep the area clean. We do their job for them," Chris said.
Kathryn was the most upset.
"I just want to know where it's legal to be homeless," she said. At one point she started to cry. But Willie barked at her in a way that said they were special to each other.
"Don't you break down on me, woman," he said sharply.
Kathryn swiped at her face with a tattered, woolen coat sleeve.
"I won't, William," she said.
Willie had been the first of the bunch to arrive at the Lemon Street exit, nearly a year ago. A homeless man before him had cleared enough underbrush from the fallen evergreen to keep out of the cold. But Willie had cut away branches to make it a real home. He had stretched old carpet across metal poles for part of the walls. He found plastic sheets and tied them together with a needle and fishing line to insulate the walls and make a ceiling.
He built shelves for canned goods and laid thin carpet scraps on the ground. He even rigged up a divider to make a small, second room.
The group had sleeping bags, donated to them, and made beds from worn-out cushions from couches or chairs people had placed near dumpsters.
They cooked by lighting a fire under a rusty, grill-like tool used by auto garages. Next to it was an assortment of jugs filled with water from a nearby bowling alley. The "room" was filled with people's discards: old pictures, a stack of wire, an electric drill Willie had tried in vain to fix. If they lived in squalor, they didn't know it.
Loads of Donated Food
At Christmastime, some of them put candy canes and a handful of ornaments on one of the firs. A newspaper story about it had brought in loads of donated food and the sleeping bags.
It really wasn't all that bad a life, said Chris, a 47-year-old part-time factory worker.
"At night we sit around and talk, drink coffee and laugh about things," he said.
Some of them couldn't work. Kathryn, 56, is more deaf than Willie and says the handicap keeps her unemployed most of the time. Chris is an ex-convict who says his record has kept him mostly unemployed. John, 48, says he has terminal cancer. And Scott, just 22, says he never had more than a carnival job. Bob, 43, says even when you work there isn't enough money to find a place to live.
Willie is 53, and says jobs are tough when you can't hear what people are saying. But the others respect him as a hard worker. He finds old bicycle parts and puts them together. Once the bicycles work, he sells them for $5 each, but confesses he gives a lot of them away to other homeless people.
As situations go, the small band thought they had made out pretty well. But a few days ago, whatever had amounted to their good luck finally ran out. A car ran off the freeway and crashed into the chain link fence that divided the road berm from the Anaheim Drive-In. The car had driven through the 50-yard opening between the two shanties.
The California Department of Transportation and CHP officials feared someone was going to get killed if Willie and the others stayed there.
Just as the CHP officers had warned, at 10 a.m. six Caltrans workers arrived in their hard hats and orange jackets. They mostly watched the packing in silence.