Laura Kasten stood outside her mother’s house in Fullerton, a backpack pulling on her hunched shoulders. She fidgeted.
The 51-year-old and her mom, Jan Rockwell, hadn’t spoken since arguing just before Christmas. Laura braced herself.
“I’ve got your mail right on the table,” Rockwell, 79, said as they squeezed onto a faded living room couch. “I’d like to hug you if I can hold my nose.”
It was early February and Laura was back in the narrow, three-bedroom suburban house where she’d grown up. But it was a far cry from the place she called home, a sprawling tent city along the Santa Ana River, a tableau of misery that included drug addicts such as herself, runaways, felons, the mentally ill and people priced out of the region’s skyrocketing housing market.
“I bet that riverbed is gross. Gross,” Rockwell said. “I hope you’ve been staying out of trouble.”
“Mom, don’t start, or I gotta leave,” Laura said. “We fight every time, which is why I can’t see you much. And no — you don’t need to visit me. You don’t want to see those crazy sights.”
The riverbed was then the largest homeless encampment in Orange County. It swelled with hundreds of residents — with men and women whose teeth were decayed from drug use, their skin bronzed by the blistering sun. They napped during the day and tried to stay awake at night to guard their few belongings. The acrid, skunky smell of pot filled the air, riding the scent of grilled burgers and human waste.
Neighbors around the tent city wanted them gone: They can’t stay, they protested. They aren’t from here.
But like Laura, many of the riverbed’s homeless had roots elsewhere in Orange County.
Now, in the living room of her childhood home, Laura and her mother gossiped and compared physical ailments.
As the light faded and Laura prepared to leave, Rockwell told her she worried. She’d watched a story on the news recently about someone trying to stalk and kill the homeless and wondered where her daughter might be. Rockwell, diagnosed with pulmonary disease, couldn’t offer Laura refuge. But she begged her daughter to turn her life around. Maybe get a factory job, she suggested.
Despite her mother’s pleas, Laura missed the camp when she was away. She and her husband, John, and their dog, Sebastian, lived in what she called “the compound” — interlocking tents covered with tarp and about the size of a one-bedroom apartment, in a prime spot near Orangewood Avenue in Anaheim, under the towering Big A sign outside the Los Angeles Angels’ baseball stadium.
She left her mother’s house that Saturday night, took a Lyft, picked up her bike from its parking spot and pedaled “home” to the riverbed.
It wouldn’t be long, though, before that home would be scrubbed away.
The riverbed camp had become a symbol of a growing homeless problem, one that Orange County was struggling to tackle.
For a while, county officials seemed to have a plan in place: Move hundreds of people from the Santa Ana River camps into motels and eventually into shelters in Huntington Beach, Irvine and Laguna Niguel.
More than 1,000 people from Irvine alone showed up to a county Board of Supervisors meeting to fight back.
“This freaks me out. I moved to O.C. because I thought it would be a safe place. Now it’s getting more and more like L.A.,” said one longtime Irvine resident, reflecting the sentiment of many.
But many of the homeless people along the riverbed were locals, too, having grown up in suburban Orange County.
In a hutch in the home belonging to Laura’s mother, a black-and-white portrait shows her great-grandparents, a dignified couple originally from Arkansas, wearing late 1800s clothing with stiff collars and neckties, clutching a baby boy in a white lace gown.
Laura’s grandfather, Ernest Martin Henson, owned two Fullerton gas stations and two homes. Rockwell, her mother, was born in that city and raised in a house surrounded by avocado trees.
Rockwell was married by 14 and pregnant within a year. Three babies followed and she juggled jobs trying to provide for them, working as a dog groomer at Anaheim Feed and tending bar at night.
Laura, too, became a teenage mom, giving birth to the first of her five children at 16. She married John Kasten, an Arizona native, in 1991.
John, intelligent and quick-witted, held advanced degrees in clinical psychology, and his work in information technology allowed the Kastens to travel to almost all 50 states. At his peak, John earned $150,000 a year and the couple lived in a stately two-story house with six bedrooms in Port Murray, N.J. On the half-acre property, they had a Corvette in the garage and an outdoor shed for a tractor.
John, 61, helped Laura raise her four children from a previous relationship and the couple had one daughter together, named Ashley. Laura was a PTA mom who spent hours driving her youngest child to and from cheerleading practice.
In a family album, one photo from around 1999 shows John, Laura and Ashley during a trip to Ellis Island. The little blond girl leans into her dad. Smiles adorn every face.
Cleanup at the camp where the Kastens and about 700 others lived — less than five miles from Disneyland — started in earnest in January.
For months, officials had been methodically clearing out homeless encampments along the waterway, starting at the Pacific Ocean and moving north. But authorities admitted they didn’t know where all the people would go.
On Valentine’s Day, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, who was presiding over a civil suit filed by homeless advocates against Orange County and the cities of Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange, took a walking tour of the camp, hugging bedraggled residents and insisting that evictions be handled “humanely and with dignity.”
Rumors swirled throughout the camp that Carter would lift a restraining order on evictions and that residents would be ordered out soon. John got angry.
“We’re here — right here,” John said, sweeping his fingers through his thin, spiky brown hair and gesturing toward the tents around him. “Few people want to move. They’ve built a community. Folks pitch in, help each other with supplies. Whenever someone’s gone, we put a spotter in place to protect their things. Where are they gonna send us?”
His friends rushed to borrow a truck to haul their belongings away. John refused to pack.
Instead, he hopped on his bike, saying he had some errands to run. Later, he stole a rib-eye steak from a store and gave it to his wife, serving it with a Valentine’s card covered in hearts.
Life with John Kasten was not easy.
He had served prison time for assault with a deadly weapon. He had been convicted of battering Laura, according to court records, and was prone to violent outbursts, she said. Once, he set propane cans in the oven, trying to blow up their old home.
“It’s like a chess game with him,” she added. “You never know what move he will make next.”
Both John and Laura have struggled with addictions to heroin and to meth, and both have done time for drug convictions, court records show.
Along the riverbed, their days were often consumed with finding and using drugs. Addicts in the camp often asked each other: Do you have black or white? Black for black tar heroin; white for crystal meth.
Some of the homeless bartered drugs. At times, they shared, expecting a favor in the future. Laura scrounged for copper wiring to sell, enabling the couple to buy bits to soothe their cravings or to get a few supplies.
When John got high, he would become manic and start moving things around, like someone frantically doing spring cleaning. Clothes, suitcases, pots and pans. He would build small hillocks out of the objects.
John was diagnosed with multiple personality disorders at a young age and has long taken medication for depression. His first exposure to illegal drugs was through an older brother, an Army veteran who returned from Vietnam with a stash of Thai stick opiates.
John moved more naturally and fearlessly than Laura through the harsh landscape of homelessness. One day, John said, he hopes to save enough money to start hormone therapy and transition from male to female. When he dresses as a woman, he uses the name Jan, though he said he preferred to be called John and used male pronouns.
After so many years, their relationship was one of co-dependency — romance a luxury they no longer possessed. Day to day, they helped each other survive.
In 2007, the couple had just relocated to Fullerton, home to three generations of Laura’s family, after more than a decade on the East Coast and in Arizona. Their intention was to help John’s dad, who suffered a stroke, so they moved in with him and Laura began working as his caregiver.
Still, tensions ran deep, and soon John was served with a restraining order after assaulting Laura. He had to leave, turning to life on the streets.
About seven years later in 2014, John’s father died at age 92. Laura became homeless after his death, when John sold the house he had inherited from his dad, using some profits to pay for a court-sanctioned rehabilitation program for Laura so she could avoid jail, having been convicted for possession of meth in 2013.
“He did it to save me,” Laura said. “We started out good. But the story of our family may not have a perfect ending. No family can stay strong through so many generations.”
Laura drifted to the riverbed and began to collect things to set up her compound — struggling as others kept stealing her stuff. For her, life was less scary with John in it. She contacted his old friends and eventually found him living underneath the 57 Freeway bridge in Placentia. They were reunited.
Today, three of Laura Kasten’s five children battle with drug addiction.
Sometimes when she’s short on drugs, Kasten goes to her daughter, Christine Flavin of Placentia, and borrows a stash.
“It’s hell, needing it physically and not being able to let it go,” said Flavin, 29. “I know I have an illness. Luckily, I’m not responsible for anyone. But John, he’s responsible for taking care of my mom, and I want him to get clean and take care of my mom.”
Even as her own children struggled, Laura became a mother figure in the camp, where she and John created a different kind of family.
She doted over Sebastian, her wire-haired terrier and dachshund mix who, she said, “has the last piece of my heart” and loved her without judgment.
Laura did her best to make her and John’s tents a home. She placed a piece of artificial turf on the ground for green space. She set out plastic lawn chairs she had retrieved from a trash bin. The shelf was stocked with canned foods and cereal. A bag of dog food sat in one corner.
“These throwaways are still good,” Kasten liked to say. “But we — we’re also throwaways for that’s how we’re treated. The government who are in a position to help us would just want to forget about us — unless they’re forced to do something. No one wants to bother because they see us as useless.”
Other campsite residents nicknamed Laura “Mama Bear.” People streamed in and out of the Kastens’ compound, seeking supplies or advice.
“They ask her for Band-Aids or clothing or food,” said one of Kasten’s neighbors, Jodi Samhat, 34, who grew up in Irvine and has been on the streets for over two years. “People look down on the homeless because they think we’re some kind of criminals, but the truth is, being homeless, like catching the flu, can happen anywhere to anyone, not just those in the inner-city.”
Feb. 20 was moving day at the Santa Ana River Trail.
The campsite had drawn so much attention — from city and county officials, homeless advocates and nearby residents who just wanted it to disappear. Behind the scenes, the county homeless czar, Susan Price, and her team had worked frantically to negotiate temporary housing at dozens of motels.
“There’s no perfect solution,” Price said. “We are committed to helping those who want to be helped.”
On the first day of the operation, a crowd of homeless men and women lined up near Ball Road in Orange to collect motel vouchers and bid farewell to what had been their refuge. Clusters of people pulling battered suitcases and bins waited to board buses that would shuttle them away.
The Kastens didn’t initially show up seeking vouchers. They planned to stay as long as possible, hoping authorities would reconsider the evictions.
But by Feb. 23, they were assigned a new destination: a room at a run-down motel along Beach Boulevard in Anaheim with about 50 other homeless people.
Laura had misunderstood the county-issued directions and left her belongings at the camp too long.
“God, my things,” she lamented a few days into her motel stay. “Almost all my things are gone — poof.”
The room had two beds but few amenities. The motel owner had stripped the rooms of microwaves, televisions, phones, even blankets. The newly-installed residents begged or bartered with each other for meals, tools, bike parts.
The riverbed was “a lot like high school,” said Tonya Walton, 45, who ended up homeless after losing her job as a drug and alcohol counselor. “You had the misfits, the druggies, the nerds, the popular crowd. Everyone’s searching and competing. At the motel, it’s pretty much the same, except we have a lot less freedom.”
The homeless residents had to agree to almost two dozen “house rules,” including no loud noises or “violent threats” and “absolutely no use or possession of drugs in the hotel.”
By late March, with one day left on their 30-day motel voucher, Laura had heard little about what would happen next. Workers at John’s clinical assessment mentioned that his “vulnerable” mental status could help his application for county housing advance quicker.
As some of their friends packed for another move to the Courtyard — the overcrowded county shelter in an old bus terminal in downtown Santa Ana — the pair learned that, because of John’s disorders, they could stay put at the aging motel.
County officials had signed a lease for six more months, hoping to house the mentally-challenged homeless there until another solution could be found.
With no television and not enough money to fund steady cellphone service, Laura had no idea that plans to build temporary homeless shelters in Irvine, Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel had drawn scores of angry protesters and were halted.
“The county could have provided us a safety net so people don’t fall through the cracks instead of moving us to a halfway house like this motel,” John said. “After this, we have to bounce around to somewhere else. I ask you: If some of the homeless haven’t been able to stabilize in 10 years, how … are they going to be able to do it now?”
Laura tried to stay busy, searching for domestic cleaning jobs and continuing to scrape copper from used electronics she found in the trash to sell for cash. John spent his days sleeping, foraging for used goods, binging, partying.
They said they went weeks without contact from homeless advocates.
In early May, inspectors for the county arrived, unannounced, to the Kastens’ motel room.
The visit proved disastrous.
After hearing noises, the inspectors discovered two people hiding in the bathtub, a violation of the no-visitors rule. And they found drugs.
They ordered John out.
Because of his mental illness, officials sent John to a private boarding house in Santa Ana. Laura was on her own.
For the moment, she would stay temporarily with her daughter in Placentia. She hoped to find odd jobs.
For John, removal from the motel, which eventually led to stays at a handful of halfway houses in Santa Ana and Garden Grove, came with both trouble — including an arrest warrant for allegedly shoplifting at a Goodwill — and a sense of liberation.
Previously more circumspect about transitioning from male to female, John embraced Jan, preferring now to use female pronouns.
The couple split, and for the first time in years, they went down separate roads.
“Our life together has ended,” Jan said. “We’ll always be friends, but I prefer to keep going. John does not go by Jan; I am Jan.”
Los Angeles Times staff photographer Gary Coronado contributed to this report.
Credits: Produced by Sean Greene.