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Garden Growing, Gardener Going

A squatter has made a home and cultivated a plot on the Santa Ana River, but it's water district land, and officials want him out.

November 13, 2003|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

Richard Dumke likes to make a distinction about his lifestyle. He isn't homeless, he's houseless.

Educated and articulate, the 60-year-old onetime biologist knows he's a trespasser and that the small but colorful arboretum he's skillfully created on the bank of the Santa Ana River in Anaheim is illegal.

But nobody in this business neighborhood near the intersection of Imperial Highway and La Palma Avenue is cheering Dumke's imminent eviction, which could come as early as today.

"I have known Richard for years now and he's harmless," said Tina Locklear, a local real estate attorney who has offered to defend him. "In fact, you ask the businesspeople in the area and they like him. He's a benefit."

Dumke said he has tended the small plot for two decades, landscaping it with castoff bushes and trees he fished from nursery dumpsters. Other plants were donated. Some he bought with his earnings as a night janitor. In all, he figures there are 250 shrubs, trees and exotic plants thriving on the patch of land.

But green thumb aside, Dumke must go, says the property owner -- the Orange County Water District.

"His being there establishes a bad precedent," said Ron Wildermuth, a water district spokesman. "Where do you draw the line when the next 20 homeless people want to homestead?"

Dumke's river presence didn't come to the agency's attention until about two months ago, when an agency employee conducting a property check discovered Dumke and his garden.

When a district security officer returned to Dumke's garden, he brought an Anaheim social services employee who tried get Dumke into a homeless shelter. Dumke declined. He also refused to sign a trespassing citation.

The water district intends to send a security officer to the garden area today, and if Dumke is present, Anaheim police will be notified. Dumke could be arrested.

The garden, Wildermuth said, will not be touched. It's just the gardener that the landowner wants gone.

Locklear is holding out hope that it's not too late for a truce, possibly an agreement allowing Dumke to remain.

"I have a job -- I'm not a bum," he said, a bit of pride in the statement. "It's been enough to pay income taxes the last four years."

He used to tend the garden by day and sleep in an old Ford van at night. But the van was towed away more than two years ago.

Dumke has fashioned a homemade shack where he cooks food that he buys or finds. Of late, the supermarket strike has been a boon, offering a cornucopia of discards.

Water comes from buckets he fills at nearby businesses, and a fast-food restaurant offers him hot coffee and a bathroom.

Mory Ghasemi, who owns Urban Cleaners in a nearby shopping center, said Dumke is helpful to area merchants because he provides an extra layer of security and watches over the retail mall. "It would not be fair to kick him out," Ghasemi said.

Dumke says he has a degree in biology from Cal State Fullerton, but left the business world ages ago to pursue a lifelong fascination with helping things grow.

He knows he doesn't own the land, but he is ready to argue, in court if necessary, that he has acquired squatter's rights: If they wanted to be rid of him, they should have taken action sooner. His garden's tall eucalyptus, koi-filled pond and mature avocado trees show that he's been there awhile.

Like his dog, Cookie, a 4-year-old Manchester terrier, each living thing has special meaning, he said.

"See that cactus?" Dumke asked, pointing to a waist-high succulent. "I planted that in honor of my friend Willy, who died in Las Vegas."

Looking at a tombstone of sorts covered with vines, he said: "That's where I buried Angie. She was a 13-year-old Shepard mix and a great companion. I don't know what I would do if I had to give up this place. I have so many sentimental things here."

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