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Costa Mesa confronts homelessness head-on

The deaths of two homeless people as temperatures dropped into the 30s expedite ongoing efforts to improve services and care for a vulnerable segment of the community.

January 19, 2013|By Rick Rojas, Los Angeles Times
  • Trevor Martinez rides a free bus to the Santa Ana armory, where overnight stays are offered during cold weather.
Trevor Martinez rides a free bus to the Santa Ana armory, where overnight… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

The police officers made their way though the Costa Mesa park known as "ground zero," the crowded hub for the city's homeless, handing out fliers and encouraging people to get on a bus that would take them out of town.

Like other cities, Costa Mesa has had a tenuous relationship with its homeless, and many would just as soon they all simply leave. But efforts on this crisp afternoon had a different motivation: They were nudging them to seek shelter from the near-freezing nights that had gripped the area and board a shuttle to the Santa Ana armory.

In the morning, they promised, the bus would bring them back, bright and early.

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"There has been a shift," said Becks Heyhoe, director of the Churches Consortium, a collective effort of about a dozen churches in town. "The city has shown — really, for the first time in its history — they are willing to address homelessness in Costa Mesa. This is really the first time the city has taken a stab at it."

A back-and-forth relationship with the homeless has long been the blueprint in a city that is defined by the high-end elegance of South Coast Plaza at one end and the clusters of homeless dozing under the shade trees and hanging around Lions Park at the other.

But the response to the deaths of two homeless people last week as temperatures dropped down into the 30s highlighted an evolution of the city's outlook, as city services and local charities were kicked into action.

Those aiding the homeless have long been the target of scorn by those wanting to rid the city of the people who drift through the old city core and sleep in the park. The bounty of services there was seen as magnets for transients. A few months ago, the now-former mayor pushed for decades-old service providers — including a clinic and a soup kitchen — to be investigated. The problem might be cured, he said, "if we managed to put the soup kitchen out of business."

But the recent deaths have expedited ongoing efforts to improve services and care for a segment of the community considered vulnerable. Patrols were stepped up and volunteers handed out blankets. One woman who lived in her car and who suffered from a chronic illness was taken to a motel to spend the night.

"We don't want any more people dying on us," said Rick Francis, assistant chief executive of Costa Mesa. "That's the bottom line."

Two years ago, when tensions over the homeless population reached a peak, the city formed a task force to confront the issue. Residents had grown frustrated by the homeless taking over Lions Park, and complained about finding abandoned needles and drunk people in the middle of the day. "It's like everything came to a head," said Muriel Ullman, a longtime city employee who now works as a consultant on homeless issues.

At that point, many held to the theory that the homeless numbers were growing at such a swift clip that there was no hope to manage, said Edward J. Clarke, a professor of sociology at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, who had led a multi-year count of the homeless population.

But his count showed that those apprehensions were unfounded. He documented about 120 homeless people with ties to Costa Mesa, with a few dozen others who came from outside the city — a figure that remained close to the same over five years. He said many came from colder climates — "the kind of places where homeless people die in the winter — and others just wandered between cities in Orange County, "where you can easily cross the border by crossing the street."

The task force's recommendations, which came out last year, focused on streamlining services and tailoring them to the needs of that community, in particular those who are Costa Mesa natives.

The churches, Heyhoe said, were also prompted to do some soul-searching about services that were found to be redundant or simply ineffective: "Were we doing it because it made us feel good or because it was really meeting a need?"

Based on task force recommendations, a picnic shelter in Lions Park that was used to hand out meals — a place that had become a homeless hangout — was demolished, and bikes are now required to be secured to racks instead of strewn about the park.

At the same time, the city hired a social worker, who worked to help people find housing or enroll in substance abuse programs. The Churches Consortium has also built a storage facility for the homeless to tuck away their possessions — backpacks, bags and carts — and come by weekly to do laundry and take a shower. Heyhoe said more than 150 people used the service last year, freeing them to have a chance to go to job interviews or enter detox programs.

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