Striking a balance

COSTA MESA — He cycled around town with an empty child trailer hitched to the back of his bike.

It was around dusk near Lions Park on a recent Tuesday. Other than messy salt-and-pepper hair and ruddy skin from six years of living on the streets, there were few signs that Joseph Deutsch was homeless.

His second-hand shirt and pants were largely well-kept. His solid frame didn't look like it had missed a meal. He spoke confidently, clearly and evenly, not betraying the bipolar disorder he says he suffers from.

The former Santa Barbara resident carried a found guitar in a worn black case, but admitted to not being much of a musician.

"I praise God with it," said Deutsch, 45, adding that he attends morning Bible studies at Lighthouse Church, a house of worship that he calls a "godsend," on Anaheim Avenue near 18th Street.

But one man's godsend — be it a church, soup kitchen or public park — is another's cross. And few places like Costa Mesa's Westside better illustrate the conflict between the homeless who say they come here for help and some long-term residents and shopkeepers who complain that the high volume of street people chase away business and make them feel unsafe.

The job now set before the Homeless Task Force, established in January, is to find solutions for both people like Deutsch, who need help, and concerned residents and business owners who want improved quality of life. Members have a six- to nine-month window to make suggestions to the City Council.

"The concerns of the residents and businesses surrounding the park were, once again, enough for the City Council to take action," said task force Chairman Steve Smith, a freelance Daily Pilot real estate columnist. "When discussing homeless crime, there is the perception and the reality. The perception is that the homeless in Lions Park are predators willing to attack any civilian who strays on their turf.

"The reality is that almost all homeless crime is either solo action, such as drinking in public, or against other homeless people. Police data supports this. That doesn't make it acceptable; it just helps put the safety question in perspective."

Deutsch's story is just one of many. So many people are wandering around Lions Park on 18th Street that the park has been called "Ground Zero" in the city's struggle to address homelessness.

Take Denise Krystynak, who was observed that same night laying on a mattress in an alley beside the Bank of America on 19th Street. She and her boyfriend were listening to the radio and openly drinking alcohol. The two had filled a shopping cart with bedding and decorated a nearby tree with stuffed animals, including a gorilla called Bubba.

Krystynak is well-known among police officers for being unpredictable. During confrontations, police have pepper-sprayed and Tasered Krystynak, and officers have arrested her numerous times.

But not everyone fits the mold. Mark S. Whiting, 51, said he has a degree in chemistry from Cal State Fullerton, but was sent to prison for manufacturing methamphetamine.

He used to live in La Mirada but now calls Lions Park home.

"I'll do anything," Whiting said. "I'll take any job."


'A perfect storm'

There is a chicken-and-egg riddle in town involving what came first: the homeless people or the secular and faith-based social service providers that help them.

Some believe that the plentiful services draw in people living on the streets. Others remind that the poor have always been with us and that the services sprouted up around them.

Share Our Selves has a free medical clinic, and the Lighthouse Church has showers and free breakfast. Mercy House provides emergency housing and the Labor Ready work program connects the homeless with employers or sober-living homes.

Then there's the Orange Coast Interfaith shelter and the Someone Cares Soup Kitchen.

All these facilities are almost less than a mile apart.

The area near Lions Park has been "historically a safe haven and has high tolerance," Vanguard University sociology professor Ed Clarke said. "People weren't bothered so much in that area."

Shannon Santos, executive director of Someone Cares, said that her grandmother was responding to a need she saw when she opened the soup kitchen 25 years ago.

"We're filling a basic, primal need just giving people hot meals," Santos said. "A lot of people have the misinterpretation that we only serve homeless. We also serve families with children, low-income seniors and vets."

Councilwoman Wendy Leece, a task force member, said that whatever solution the group comes up with, it will be a compassionate one.

"Costa Mesa's always been considered a city with a heart. You have to balance that compassion with the rule of law," she said in an interview.

"We've got a city that cares about the down-and-out, and that's a good thing," Leece said during the May meeting of the task force.

During the recent meeting, Marisa David, a local mom, told the task force of incidents where she and her neighbors were accosted by homeless people and felt unsafe walking in their neighborhood.

David said she drives her daughter to Dover Shores in Newport Beach, where she feels safer instead of walking to Lions Park near her home.

"I've always felt a little uncomfortable, but when you have a child, it's a completely different ball game," David said. "It's not 'not in my backyard,' but you can't just keep feeding them. You have to do something about it, like assistance programs."

The number of homeless people in town tends to fluctuate. As of last fall, 60 to 150 people were living on the streets of Costa Mesa, according to a count done by Clarke and his students.

An additional 206 people were counted as being "in care" or in the care of shelters or agencies, with 174 of them classified as adults.

Clarke found in interviews with homeless people that, indeed, some come to Costa Mesa because of the available services.

The combination of the service on the city's Westside created a "perfect storm" for homelessness in the area, said Costa Mesa Police Lt. Robert Sharpnack.

Of this area, Lions Park is considered the epicenter. Concern from community members not feeling safe in parks was a large factor in establishing the task force, Smith said.

This year is not the first time the city has established a homeless task force. Another was established in 2005, according to Smith, but it fizzled out. Little action was taken.


Homeless issues 'not unique'

The task force is looking at examples of how other cities, including Bellevue, Wash., New York and St. Petersburg., Fla., reduced the number of people living on the streets.

St. Petersburg took a strong stance against homelessness, passing laws limiting panhandling, public sleeping and how many belongings people can carry. In 2007, St. Petersburg earned the moniker "city without a heart" when the homeless living in tents were ordered to leave and police ripped and slashed homeless tents, according to the St. Petersburg Times.

"The homeless challenges facing Costa Mesa are not unique," Smith said. "Other cities have dealt with the issue and a large part of our due diligence is to find and recommend the best practices of those cities to make the most efficient use of taxpayer dollars."

Though not having gone that far, two Costa Mesa churches who feed the homeless at Lions Park on Wednesday told the task force they would temporarily suspend the lunches while members examine solutions.

Among other efforts, police are increasing patrols of areas known to have frequent disturbances among homeless people, and are handing out more citations.

They're also talking to liquor store owners about not selling alcohol to people who are intoxicated, and are working closely with veterans' associations and the Orange County Health Care Agency to identify veterans and those with mental-health problems who may qualify for resources.

Sharpnack was quick to point out that these measures are not new. Predecessors in the Police Department had used such measures, but now there is more support from all sides.

"We can't arrest our way out of this problem," Sharpnack said.

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World