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Windfall for the Homeless Fails to Offer Better Life

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Their joy hardly could be contained as they sat around a conference table talking to their attorneys last August.

More than 30 homeless people had taken on the Santa Ana Police Department for arresting them in a series of controversial sweeps at the city’s Civic Center. And they had won.

They were each going to receive about $11,000, and the two dozen or so gathered that day had big plans for the money. Some hoped to spend it on permanent shelter so they could look for work. Others thought they could use it to reunite with relatives or to start new lives far away from Santa Ana.

“First, I am going to get a place to live, get some new clothes, maybe get a small car--something to get around in--and look for a job,” said Gregory Smith, 32, an epileptic with a congenital spinal defect and history of alcohol abuse. “At last, I can get a start on things.”

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But as Smith and many of the others have discovered, the money offered precious few of its recipients a better life. Of the 31 plaintiffs who won the $400,000 settlement from the city, 11 are believed to be homeless again. Others are using up their last dollars living in motel rooms, and a handful disappeared without a trace.

For two, fate has been more cruel. Smith had trouble leaving his old lifestyle. Nine weeks after the settlement, he suffered a seizure and was found dead in his Garden Grove motel room.

Another plaintiff, Clemente Ruiz, never saw the money. He died a week before the checks were distributed, shot in the head, point-blank, by an unknown attacker.

And many of those who survived continue to wrestle with the same demons that made them homeless in the first place, afflictions that $11,000 cannot cure.

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“A vast majority of them have a disease. They are sick with the disease of addiction,” said Jonathan Parfrey, who has seen many of the plaintiffs come back through the doors of the Orange County Catholic Worker seeking food and shelter.

“To give them that money,” he added, “was to hand someone who plays Russian roulette a revolver with six bullets in it.”

The word on the street and from those who work with the homeless is that only nine of the plaintiffs made it “inside” and are attempting to put their money to good use, some in other parts of the country. One homeless man left California before the settlement was finalized and learned only recently, after being traced through the Social Security Administration, that he was owed the money.

“Everybody said: ‘The money is going to make you happy,’ ” said one of the plaintiffs who returned to the Civic Center within weeks. “But some people are still moving around, and they don’t seem happy to me.”

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For some, the initial wave of good intentions was overwhelmed by the temptation.

According to a frequently repeated story, one homeless man treated his friends to a night in a limousine, looking for all the drugs his money could buy. Another plaintiff, Debra Burch, 36, said she also celebrated in a luxury car.

“I had a couple of friends of mine, and we went cruisin’ around Santa Ana, and we got drunk,” she said, laughing.

Pockets that were once stuffed with cash soon became empty.

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Within days, a couple of men were back on the street, living in a parking garage in makeshift tents anchored by shopping carts. Others retreated to motel rooms--but never too far away from their friends--until they gradually returned.

Two men who received $22,000 each because they were physically abused by police during one of the raids in August, 1990, were among those who had difficulty adapting to a new lifestyle.

Even some who said they wanted a new life complained that it just was not enough cash. Burch, who returned this week to the Civic Center with her dog, Rosie, said she wanted “out” but could not find a job.

After her celebration, Burch said she took a two-week trip to Missouri to see her two children. When she returned, she rented a room. She bought a used bed, television and a chest of drawers. But she worries now that the money may soon run out.

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On the surface, at least, a few of the plaintiffs seem to have fared better.

Away from Santa Ana in a gated apartment complex last week, Norman Bell stretched across his living room floor on old sofa cushions as he spoke of his new life.

“I don’t want to be on the street,” he said. “There’s a swimming pool out there, there’s a Jacuzzi, and I have fun. I can buy food, I don’t have to stand in line waiting for soup.”

But Bell, 55, admitted that he still drinks. And he has yet to look for work.

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There are a few cases where plaintiffs seem to have used their windfalls to tackle problems that had dogged them all their adult lives, social workers say.

Joe Arias, 23, had just completed a drug treatment program before receiving his check. He was reunited with his family, Parfrey said.


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