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The 'Homeless in Paradise' Inhabit Beach Cities in Growing Numbers

September 08, 2002|JANET WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Harry the Hugger sniffs the air from his hiding place behind a parochial school in downtown San Clemente.

"You know how you tell time when you're homeless? You can smell it. They're setting up for lunch. In 10 minutes the bells will ring."

Spying a stray basketball in the underbrush, Harry throws it over the chain-link fence to a group of curious youngsters. "Are you having an adventure?" a little girl asks, eyeing the shaggy, gray-haired man and his brown paper bag.

"Yes, we're having a little adventure," Harry agrees softly.

Harry, whose name is Harold F. Moore III, has lived on the streets of this Orange County beach city since his mother died four years ago. He knows every fruit tree, backyard garden, and public restroom in town.

Known as "the hugger" for his gregarious character, he is 49, a self-proclaimed alcoholic, and one of an estimated 23,000 people who have no home to sleep in each night in this opulent southern California county.

That number is up 17% from a year ago, and up more than 100% in five years, according to county surveys of shelters and agencies that assist the needy.

While most homeless people hunker down in shelters or cheap motels in the poorer inland cities, hundreds more quietly inhabit the upscale beach communities along the Southland's Gold Coast. From San Clemente to Huntington Beach, they set up makeshift camps on sandy hilltops above the Pacific, tuck themselves behind bushes next to the soaring concrete struts of the San Diego Freeway, or lie motionless from midnight until dawn on resort hotel fire escapes.

"I'd rather be homeless in paradise," Harry says. "Why go inland? People in this town are kind."

Harry's day begins at 5 a.m. He starts it with two quart bottles of beer, a jumbo coffee, and five cigarettes.

Twice this summer, rattlesnakes have slithered by his sleeping bag. A fellow homeless man knifed the head off one; Harry caught the second. Spider bites are also a risk, but right now, he is worried about something more prosaic--head lice.

"Hey, Marie, can you get me some of that special soap for lice? And some of those rattlesnake kits," he begs of Marie Toland, head of Family Assistance Ministries, which helps the homeless in Dana Point, San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente.

Toland and others say that although south Orange County residents are shocked to learn of the homeless in their midst, it makes sense that they are there. "Would you rather be homeless in Watts, or San Clemente?" she asked. "If I was homeless, I'd move to La Jolla."

Most of the homeless here are white; many have roots in the area. Like many a multimillionaire, those on the street praise the warm weather, low crime rate, and friendly downtown shops. But they also rely on public beach showers and ready day jobs.

Harry often works as a casual laborer, earning $50 cash on average. He has manned a jackhammer; he has done house painting, dry walling, landscaping, car washing, dog washing, dishwashing, demolition--everything but hold a full-time job.

"Everybody seems to think it's a bad way to live, but it's not. It's just a different way to live," says Harry. "Imagine this: I'm not gonna lose the front door key when I walk out in the morning, I don't have to pay rent, everything I need I can get with my hands. It's very peaceful."

There are 800,000 to 1 million homeless people in the United States on any given night, according to the most recent federal study in 1996. As housing prices have soared, and an economic contraction has lead to layoffs, experts say those numbers have steadily climbed. Close to two-thirds are men on their own, and three-quarters of homeless adults report mental health or substance abuse problems, or both.

Orange County's coastal homeless fit the pattern, according to police and homeless advocates.

The bulk of people who gather for free meals at parks, churches, restaurants and other feeding spots are men who have left grieving relatives behind to pursue alcohol, drugs or inner demons. Women with children receive top priority for emergency housing assistance.

Several coastal towns have their own homeless subcultures. San Clemente is the place, if you're smart enough, to win your own spot on "the Hill," a majestic bluff that has long provided safe haven for street people and is now slated to be turned into multimillion dollar estates.

And Capistrano Beach churches serve the best dinners.

At the tiny San Felipe de Jesus Roman Catholic churchyard in Capistrano Beach, for example, tonight's menu is roast ham, macaroni and cheese, and fresh fruit and vegetables.

A group of men lounge on the front lawn afterward, drinking and singing snatches of rock songs, and trading news.

A man who calls himself "the mayor" reports that two local homeless people have died this month.

"Cat Man got hit by a car on Ortega Highway," he says. "And Danny just never woke up in camp one morning, I guess."

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