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Costa Mesa finds success with homeless intervention program

The city attorney, police, VA and others have been attempting a customized approach to helping the homeless. One officer helped a man obtain an ID, contact his family and return home to Chicago.

June 28, 2011|By Lauren Williams, Los Angeles Times
  • Costa Mesa residents listen during a hearing on a budget plan June 21, 2011.
Costa Mesa residents listen during a hearing on a budget plan June 21, 2011. (Jae C. Hong, Associated…)

He stood at the gate to his United Airlines flight, ready to head home to Chicago after two years on the streets of Costa Mesa.

Jose Zamora might not have been there but for the man standing next to him, who had come to see him off at John Wayne Airport. Julian Trevino, a Costa Mesa police officer, not only helped Zamora get an identification card but also helped him contact a sister to buy the $485 ticket home.

Soon Zamora, 50, would rejoin his family and see his granddaughter for the first time.

He's benefiting from Costa Mesa's new, more customized approach to dealing with its homeless population, which numbers as many as 150.

About six months ago, the city attorney began working closely with the police to assess the types of homeless people who live on the streets, including repeat misdemeanor offenders, said Elena Gerli of the city attorney's office.

If a homeless person violates certain Costa Mesa ordinances, such as camping in the park or drinking alcohol in public, the city refers them to Orange County's homeless court, Gerli said.

Anyone prone to more serious crimes — violence, theft, repeated public-nuisance citations — receives "a little more of a punishment mode," Gerli said. "We start pushing a little bit."

The city attorney's office and Orange County district attorney's office work together on comprehensive prosecution, she said.

Police also reached out to the Department of Veterans Affairs, whose representatives about three months ago began weekly visits to Lions Park — long a magnet for the homeless — to help identify those who might qualify for VA services, according to Trevino.

Kenny Preecs, an outreach director for Veterans First who works with homeless veterans in Costa Mesa, said at least six people from the Lions Park area have been taken into VA assistance programs.

Police officers even carry business cards and phone numbers for shelters to hand out to the homeless. But the future of this customized approach to homelessness could be affected by proposed budget cuts, which led to the abrupt resignation last week of Costa Mesa's police chief, Steve Staveley.

The approach has worked for Zamora.

During his two years on Costa Mesa's streets, Zamora was arrested 22 times and cited about 100 times, Trevino said. Most of the allegations involved drinking in public and trespassing.

To hear Zamora tell it, it was a combination of circumstances — including being robbed, struggling with alcoholism and having no friends or family in Southern California — that landed him among Costa Mesa's homeless.

He left Chicago after a series of personal setbacks. In the wake of a bitter divorce, Zamora didn't want to live in the same city as his ex-wife. His employer had moved out of Illinois, and he decided to take the $7,000 in benefits he had accrued while making parts in a factory and head to Southern California.

"I was told it was where everything was at," Zamora said.

He headed first to Newport Beach but, after becoming homeless, was directed to Costa Mesa because of the resources available there, he said.

"I never left 19th Street 'cause I'd get lost," Zamora said, referring to an area near Lions Park.

Then Trevino began working closely with him — calling Zamora's family when he said he wanted to go back to Chicago and contacting the Department of Motor Vehicles, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Social Security Administration to ensure Zamora would have the ID needed to board a commercial flight.

Trevino was off duty the day of the flight but said he wanted to personally see to it that Zamora made it to the airport. That included stopping at a local clinic so Zamora could pick up medicine to treat symptoms related to alcohol withdrawal.

Zamora, planning to live with one of his sisters, said he was looking forward to having a roof over his head, and was hopeful that another sister could get him a job at a factory.

Zamora spent his last week at a Costa Mesa motel, courtesy of his sister, and before checking out confided that he made the bed and took out the trash.

"I hate to leave a mess," he said.

lauren.williams@latimes.com

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