The sun has set, and the air begins to grow chilly. Temperatures will probably drop into the 40s today. The soup kitchens are closed and shelter space is limited for grown men. It is time for over 38,000 homeless people to find a warm place to sleep while avoiding the constant patrol of the police.
I spent the last two weekends on the streets of Santa Ana, along with a close friend, Steven Thompson. Like the picture suggests, I wanted to go undercover inside the world of the homeless, though I barely came out scratching the surface.
My trip began on the OCTA bus system, thanks to my U-Pass. Without much research into the matter, we decided to take the bus into the heart of Santa Ana.
What we witnessed was very unusual. The streets of Santa Ana were barren of homeless people after sunset. More puzzling was our search for a shelter, which materialized into nothing.
As we came to each shelter address, we found offices, but no shelter facilities. I later learned that the locations of many of the homeless services were kept hidden.
The most striking feature of that evening was the complete emptiness of the streets. We did notice that the police seemed to patrol these areas heavily. In fact, we saw very few pedestrians, aside from a group of young people, workers taking the bus home and a couple of guys being interrogated by the police.
The next weekend, I started from a more familiar location and the mystery of Orange County’s homeless population began to unravel.
I learned from shelter and soup kitchen coordinators that the police often seek out the homeless.
They warned me to be careful with my camera and told me that many people would be angry if I flashed my camera to take a picture.
A local denizen known by everyone as ‘The Sheriff’ shed some light on why the homeless may be avoiding the law.
‘Police go out of their way to harass the homeless,’ The Sheriff said. ‘We [The Sheriff and his girlfriend] got caught three times for not having a place to lay our heads. Her tickets were $1,000 a piece. I told the judge, ‘Hey, you know, if she had a 1000 bucks she could get a motel.’
‘Oh, be very careful about that,’ The Sheriff advised me as I spoke to Dave, another homeless person living in Santa Ana, about taking a picture. ‘A lot of these people are running from the law. They owe child support. Cameras scare the crap out of them.’
Other people I came into contact with shed light on the relationship between law enforcement officials and the homeless.
‘They take ’em out of Costa Mesa and Newport. They just want to get them out of the city,’ said Dave, a reformed drug and alcohol abuser living out of his car. ‘I knew this one guy, Todd. They picked him up one night. They took him 30 miles away and dropped him off.’
It quickly became apparent to me why the homeless are not on Santa Ana’s streets.
‘The police cut off our showers. We used to have showers right down the street,’ The Sheriff said. ‘They’re trying to chase us out. Everybody’s got their hideouts.’
Others I spoke to wished to remain anonymous but shared similar experiences. Many live out of their cars, and those who live on the street are in constant search of hiding places.
The very few services available usually come from local churches and not the city.
Yet there are still some shelters available. Beginning Dec.1, the National Guard Armory will open its doors in Fullerton and Santa Ana and remain open until March 31.
For the rest of the year, the shelters remain predominantly for women.
‘The girls have it a lot harder than the guys,’ The Sheriff said. ‘If a guy falls asleep somewhere, no one’s gonna bug him. Girls aren’t safe on the street, and they need a shower and stuff all the time.’
As I was packing up to go home, I bumped into a homeless person with an unusual history, ‘Manning,’ who wished to remain anonymous.
Like myself, he is a tourist. A soup kitchen coordinator told me that he is an extremely wealthy man. As I approached him I noticed his Cannondale Bicycle, probably worth well in the thousands.
‘I spent 21 years at [a corporation] as an executive vice president,’ Manning said. ‘They retired me and I went back to my apartment. For six months I drove myself crazy.’
Biking became an escape from the tedious lifestyle of this retired executive.
‘Being homeless on a bike, I don’t have to be. I can go back to Manhattan and sit in a nice comfortable apartment, but I’m bored,’ Manning said.
His year of biking led him to form his own, some might say, extreme theories on why the homeless live in poverty.
‘Because they don’t really want to do anything. They don’t really want to work. All they want to do is drink and do their drugs,’ Manning said.
But Dave has a different thought on why the homeless stay in poverty.
‘Probably because they’re mental, they have a mental problem. Or they don’t want to get off drugs, or something,’ Dave said.
As far as job opportunities go, chances are pretty slim. As The Sheriff tells me, there is a job service that pays $40 for a day of labor. But in terms of job training and assistance, the only places to provide service are a few local churches.
As the soup kitchen closes Sunday afternoon, I decide it’s time to go back home. I say goodbye to Manning, who gets on his bike and rides off. Others ride off as well, some drive, most walk.
As I begin to leave, I remember feeling lost and confused in Santa Ana during my first weekend here. As I leave the second weekend, I still feel confused about the way things are.
I hear many accuse the homeless for resorting to drugs and alcohol, but few, if any, question why they do or offer alternatives.
And after only two weekends I have no answers, only a question: Could we do more for these people?