Column

Strangers weave a safety net for woman who lost it all, including her home

News of Edythe “Edie” Russell’s predicament traveled quickly on Saturday when Kerri Shafer-Ross, who works for an escrow company, posted an alert on Nextdoor Carlsbad.

“Please help me find help for this woman,” Shafer-Ross wrote on the site, which serves as sort of a digital bulletin board in various communities. Shafer-Ross included a link to my Sunday column on Russell, who lost her home in a trailer park and had been living in her car with her two dogs for about three weeks.

Mike Haas, a real estate agent, saw the Nextdoor post and drove to the Carlsbad Senior Center, where he found Russell in her PT Cruiser with pups Chloe and Tippy. Haas offered Russell some water and snacks, and told her someone else would be along in the morning to check on her.

“I’ve done that stuff with my church for years,” said Haas, who told me he used to have more time for that kind of outreach at Life Christian Church in Vista, before work and family obligations mounted.

Shafer-Ross, meanwhile, has a friend named Dani, who made a sizable donation to the cause. On Sunday morning, Shafer-Ross went to the senior center and introduced herself to Russell.

By then, residents of the area had helped Russell start her car, which had a dead battery and was out of gas. Shafer-Ross led Russell to a nearby Motel 6, and used the donation from Dani to set her up for a week.

But that wasn’t the end of local efforts to help a 78-year-old woman who told me she never quite recovered from the loss of two real estate investments during the housing crash and has been on medication for depression for years.

A retired woman named Jeanine (I’m withholding some last names by request) took Russell to dinner Sunday night. Jeanine, who said she has helped seniors in similar straits more than once, wanted to get to know Russell, earn her trust and come up with ways to help her over the long term.

Some locals offered pet supplies for Chloe and Tippy. Chris Deatrick of SoCal Auto in San Marcos offered to service the car. Diane Lofshult, a writer, relayed updates to me. Some folks offered referrals to public and nonprofit housing and social services, such as Father Joe’s Villages in San Diego. Shafer-Ross set up a fundraising site for those wishing to make donations (go to youcaring.com).

It was as if the community had thrown out a safety net for a stranger.

“Let’s face it, a lot of us are only a few paychecks away from being in Edie’s situation,” said Jeri Lumpkin of Vista.

Lumpkin lives in the trailer park where Russell, whose last steady work was as a caregiver for ailing seniors, fell behind with the rent and got evicted. Lumpkin, a retiree, told me she volunteers at a homeless outreach program called the Gleaning Field Foundation. She’s seen firsthand the way bad luck and poor choices can send someone tumbling.

“Any of us can make bad choices. Trust me, I’ve made a few of them in my life,” said Lumpkin. “When we try to help the people at our outreach, I understand that some can never be helped. But if we can help a few, then it’s worth the effort.”

When mechanic Jarrett Rogers, 25, emailed me to say he’d be happy to fix Russell’s car, I asked where his generosity came from.

“I used to live in my car, too, so I understand her hardships,” said Rogers.

Rogers told me he had a job he hated so much, he quit, and lived in his Chevy Malibu for a year. That was when he came up with the idea for a mobile auto repair company, Trusted Mechanix. He’s got an apartment now and said business is good.

Robin Doyno, who’s on the Homeless Solutions Committee in Mar Vista, checked in with me to make a pitch for Safe Parking as an option for people who are homeless but have vehicles. That’s a program in Santa Barbara, where parking lots at 23 churches and synagogues, local businesses and public facilities are available for overnight stays. About half the participants are 55 and older, and the funding is primarily from local, state and federal grants.

Cassie Roach, the program coordinator, said support services are provided by New Beginnings Counseling Center with the goal of getting people back into housing and/or work. The big challenge is finding affordable homes, she said, but 61 individuals were housed in the last year. Roach said San Diego, Long Beach, Stockton, Los Angeles and Mountain View have sent representatives to Santa Barbara to look at the program.

In Carlsbad, Jeanine is serving as a volunteer social worker, for all intents and purposes, in trying to line up the best options for Russell and help her make good choices, financial and otherwise. On Tuesday, Jeanine, who is retired from the insurance business, went to Russell’s old trailer and began hauling her things away to a storage facility.

Shafer-Ross, meanwhile, took lunch to Russell at the Motel 6.

Russell is but one person among tens of thousands in Southern California who live in cars and parks and on sidewalks — no fewer than a dozen of them hang out at the Carlsbad Senior Center.

Every one of them has a story, some more sympathetic than others, and it’s easy to throw your hands up at the enormity of the problem, to oversimplify the causes, to judge people or cast blame.

In Carlsbad, neighbors didn’t do that.

They simply helped, and Edythe Russell is extremely grateful.

“People have been great,” she said.

Get more of Steve Lopez's work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez

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