Helping homeless gets personal
He stood at the gate to his United Airlines flight, ready to head home to Chicago after two years on the streets of Costa Mesa.
Officer Julian Trevino, a Costa Mesa cop, had helped Jose Zamora get an identification card and contact his sister so she could buy her brother a ticket home. Trevino stood by as the 50-year-old homeless man prepared to board a last-minute, $485 flight out of John Wayne Airport on a recent Friday. Zamora was leaving Costa Mesa to rejoin his family and see his granddaughter for the first time.
His story is one example of the new, more customized approach that Costa Mesa police and the city attorney have taken to deal with the city’s homeless population.
About six months ago, the city attorney began working closely with police officers to assess the different types of homeless people and repeat misdemeanor offenders in order to create a more individualized approach, said Elena Gerli of the city attorney’s office.
If a homeless person commits crimes that have no direct victim but are generally considered offensive or damaging to society, such as camping in the park or drinking in public, the city refers them to Orange County’s homeless court, Gerli said.
Police have also been working with the Department of Veterans Affairs, whose representatives started visiting Lions Park weekly after police contacted them about three months ago to identify homeless people who qualify for V.A. services, according to Trevino.
At least six people from the Lions Park area have been taken into V.A. assistance programs, said Kenny Preecs, an outreach director for Veterans First who works directly with homeless veterans in Costa Mesa.
Many officers on Costa Mesa’s Westside carry business cards and phone numbers for shelters in their uniform breast pocket or service bag to hand out to the homeless population.
Those prone to violence, stealing or who are repeatedly a public nuisance receive “a little more of a punishment mode,” Gerli said. “We start pushing a little bit.”
The city attorney’s office and Orange County district attorney’s office work together on comprehensive prosecution, which determines how they handle individuals based on the types of offenses committed, Gerli said.
How he got there
During his time on Costa Mesa streets, Zamora accumulated a record of 22 arrests and about 100 citations, Trevino said.
Most of the arrests and tickets were for alleged drinking in public, open-container violations and trespassing.
Often by Zamora’s side was Scott Solverson, another homeless man who shared clothes, food and beer with him. When one of them was sick, the other would take care of him, Zamora said.
For Zamora, it was a combination of circumstances including being robbed, alcoholism and having no friends or family in Southern California that landed him among the 60 to 150 homeless people in Costa Mesa.
He left Chicago in the wake of a bad divorce and didn’t like the idea of living in the same town as his ex-wife. His employer had moved out of Illinois, and he decided to take the $7,000 in benefits he had accrued while making parts in a factory and head to Southern California.
“I was told it was where everything was at,” Zamora said.
He headed first to Newport Beach, but after becoming homeless, he was directed to Costa Mesa because of the resources available there, he said.
“I never left 19th Street ‘cause I’d get lost,” Zamora said.
Trevino worked closely with the homeless man, calling his family after Zamora said he wanted to go back to Chicago.
Multiple calls to the Department of Motor Vehicles, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Social Security office were made so as to furnish Zamora with the ID needed to board a commercial flight.
On the way to John Wayne airport before the flight back to Chicago, Trevino took Zamora to the SOS Free Medical Clinic on the Westside so he could pick up medicine to treat his seizures and delirium tremens, a physical or mental reaction from alcohol withdrawal, which Zamora has endured as a result of his alcoholism.
Trevino was off duty that Friday morning, but he wanted to see to it personally that Zamora made it to the airport. The officer drove him to JWA and accompanied him through the terminal to the gate, waiting until the plane took off to guard against any possibility of an emergency.
Zamora was looking forward to again having a roof over his head. He said he planned to live with his sister, and he was hopeful that another sister could get him a job at a factory. He will also see his grown-up children.
Working with Trevino, Zamora’s sister arranged for her brother to stay at the Harbor Bay motel for a week before he left Costa Mesa.
Solverson, his friend from the streets, stayed with him for a week at the motel before they said goodbye.
“That week at the motel did them a world of good,” Trevino said.
Before checking out on June 10, the day he flew home, Zamora nervously made the bed at his motel room and took out the trash.
“I hate to leave a mess,” he said.