Meanwhile, county officials scrambled to figure out their next move. They dispersed homeless individuals willing to accept help into mental health programs, emergency shelters, clinics, or interim housing, but most of these facilities are concentrated in a few cities, and they were running out of beds. Board of Supervisors Chairman Andrew Do told me that without sufficient shelter and housing throughout the county, “we’ll just be chasing the homeless population from one city to the next.” Money isn’t the problem: If none of the 34 cities of Orange County is willing to open its doors, “I can sit on a billion dollars and not be able to do a thing.”
And that’s what’s happening: The county earmarked $20 million to build a new mental health crisis center in Garden Grove, but the city suddenly pulled out of the deal. When county supervisors proposed moving 400 of the riverbed transients into three temporary tent shelters to be erected in Irvine, Huntington Beach, and Laguna Niguel—all affluent cities—residents howled.
“Absolutely not!” Parissa Yazdani, a 29-year-old Irvine resident, told me. “I know some people want help, but I also know many who don’t, and I won’t put my own family in jeopardy.” As she said this, she watched her two young kids run around the playground at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, where families picnic, stroll, and do yoga on emerald-green lawns.
Yazdani, a business owner, single mother, and daughter of an Iranian Revolution refugee, said she moved to Irvine because of its reputation as one of the safest cities in the nation. As a kid growing up in Reno, Nev., she used to find condoms and needles at her school’s playground, and she doesn’t want that for her own children. She said her ex-boyfriend was a homeless drug addict for years until the police found him in the gutter with needle marks: “This whole thing scares me, because how many of him will be at that tent shelter?”
Service providers told me public fear of the homeless makes it almost impossible for elected officials to build shelters without facing threats of recalls. About a week after county supervisors announced the tent shelter plan, hundreds of Irvine residents packed into two dozen charter buses and pulled up at the Orange County Civic Center to wave posters that read, “NO TENT CITY” and “Solutions, NOT tents.” People also crammed into city council meetings to demand that their leaders come up with a better long-term solution, one that’s far away from their kids’ schools.
Officials from Irvine, Huntington Beach, and Laguna Niguel decided to sue the county. One city councilwoman echoed the sentiment of many when she said, “Don’t move your problem … and put it here.” Another councilman declared, “There’s not enough money, anywhere—anywhere!—to take care of people who do not want to take care of themselves.” One Republican congressman suggested busing the homeless to the front lawns of California’s Democratic leaders.
Faced with such opposition, county supervisors withdrew their tent shelter proposal. They still have no solution for the homeless.
While leaders and citizens jostle for answers, Orange County Rescue Mission (OCRM) in Tustin continues to do what it’s been doing for 52 years: helping the least, the last, and the lost. At OCRM, residents typically stay for 18 to 24 months and are required to participate in group sessions, counseling, and chapel each week. They work with case managers to set up personalized goals and gain life skills and job training so they can find employment.
Many who arrive at OCRM suffer from mental illness or substance abuse, and some are victims of domestic abuse or trauma. Some graduate from the program transformed and self-sufficient, while others fail to complete the program. Many come back a second or third time until everything finally clicks.
Advocates are right to say the homeless are human beings who deserve compassion, but concerned residents are also right to say some homeless people reject compassion and cling to personal vices. Quick-fix solutions don’t address both sides. “There’s no silver bullet,” said OCRM President Jim Palmer. “We have to go back to the heart issue.” And heart change is a slow, intentional, love-fed process.
Deborah Leet, 54, had that heart change. Two years ago, she dwelled in a fog of depression and self-pity. Every day she sat on a bench in front of a laundromat, sipping vodka out of a Gatorade bottle and watching life bustle about her. She slept every night in an alley behind the laundromat, often without a tent or sleeping bag.
Leet had lived in Orange County all her life. She never did drugs, didn’t binge drink, didn’t smoke. She used to drive by homeless people begging for money or food, and she would snort, “Just go get a job!” For 23 years she lived with her boyfriend in Tustin, a middle-class city bordering Irvine, until one day the boyfriend left her for another woman and sold their house. Grief-stricken, Leet quit her job and spent several days crying in a motel. She was down to her last $200 when a homeless man invited her to stay with him and his friend behind the laundromat.
As months passed, Leet became so weak she couldn’t walk, and her feet swelled so much that she left her shoelaces untied. Passersby pitied her and brought her food, blankets, and hygiene products, but she refused to check into a shelter, unable to discard the hope that her ex-boyfriend might return for her.
But the harsh street life finally drilled through her stupor. The police were constantly rustling up the homeless, and one night, while Leet sat in a tent behind the Tustin Library, a police officer told her once again that she had to leave. Exhausted, she began bawling: “God, if You’re real, I need to know. I don’t know what to do.”
God answered by sending an OCRM staff member named Jesus to her. By then, Leet was so weak that Jesus had to carry her to the van and take her to the hospital. A doctor said that had she waited two more days, she would have died from a heart attack. When she was finally stable enough to enter OCRM, Leet still felt lonely and sad, but for once, she felt safe, because she knew then that God had heard her.
That was Aug. 22, 2017. Today Leet works in OCRM’s kitchen, preparing hot meals for other homeless shelters. “I know now why I went through all that, because you have to suffer and be in that darkness to find God, to be in His light,” she says. “He was always with me. I just had to go through that process to get here.”
Brian Kelly too hit the bottom when, after three years at the river, something clicked in his consciousness: “I’m tired of this. I don’t want to live homeless anymore, I don’t want to be a whore anymore.” He called a family friend, who drove him to OCRM. The day he entered OCRM, on Feb. 22, 2018, a staff member swung a badge around Kelly’s neck and said, “Smile for your badge, because you’re not homeless anymore. Welcome home, Brian.”
It took a while for Kelly, now 28, to feel at home. His first week, he slept on the floor of his room in a fetal position without a pillow or blanket. When he first entered OCRM’s chapel, Kelly half-expected himself to “burst into flames.” Remembering how his Catholic church had shunned him for his homosexuality, he stood in the corner with his arms folded, thinking, “Screw this, I don’t need God in my life.”
One day, Kelly told his case manager everything he had done. The case manager listened, then said, “Jesus Christ loves you no matter what happened, and He still loves you.” Kelly still weeps when he recalls that moment: “Wow, I actually needed to hear that. After all that bull I put God through, He still loves me? Wow.” Kelly soon professed faith in Christ. He still craves meth, but tells himself, “Not today. No, no.” Today, he continues his program at OCRM.
Stories like Leet’s and Kelly’s are what keep old-school organizations such as OCRM relevant and optimistic, even as Palmer looks at the chaos that’s unfolding in Orange County.
“I’m watching it every single day,” he said. “We’re in a situation that’s very new in this level and intensity, so I honestly don’t know what’ll happen.” But, he added, “We’re not hopeless at all.”