COSTA MESA — During Thursday morning’s Bible study at Lighthouse Church, Danon Hellbusch sat on the floor between racks of free clothes, charging a slim red phone.
The man, recently homeless and living in a cardboard box near the Department of Motor Vehicles office on 19th Street, said it was the ability to connect his cell phone to a power source that led him to his all-important job interview Friday.
“It’s very important when I’m working,” said a clean-shaven Hellbusch in his spotless white T-shirt. “I’m a virtual assistant. I’m using my cell phone and laptop continually.”
Electrical outlets are simple, small and found in every home, but to the homeless, they are sometimes a hard-to-access necessity that powers everything from smartphones and laptops to wheelchairs and court-ordered monitoring bracelets.
Lighthouse Church, bodegas, cars and friends’ homes are just some of the power sources serving a population of increasingly connected street people.
Take Ron Davis, who has been on the streets for four years. He uses a digital camera to photograph
the work he does as a handyman, then he shows the pictures to potential employers.
Without a place to power his boxy point-and-shoot, he can’t find work. Fortunately for Davis, a recent influx of jobs has made it possible for him to buy a laptop and a car, where he usually charges up his devices.
Many others, however, aren’t able to afford cars, whose cigarette lighters can supply power.
Police sometimes see the homeless
charging their devices outside of area businesses, particularly on the Westside.
Victor Bonilla is troubled by the homeless using outlets outside of his bodega.
Bonilla, who owns a small market about a block away from Lighthouse Church and pays about $1,700 a month in electricity bills, said he is just trying to get by. He can’t afford for anyone to tap into his utilities, so he’s considering hiring an electrician to remove the outdoor outlet.
Some in need of power wear court-ordered GPS ankle devices, some of which must be charged twice a day for an hour to keep from sending a signal to law enforcement.
“They [charge] wherever they can,” said Costa Mesa police Officer Julian Trevino. “They just plug in.”
Some, but not all, of those wearing the ankle bracelets are sex offenders.
Of the 146 sex offenders in Costa Mesa, 22 are listed as transients, according to information provided by police, although it is unclear how many are mandated to wear a GPS ankle device.
Police say they have met one sex offender living on the streets who used outlets at a Westside storage facility where he used to store a car, while others point to liquor stores that welcome those who need to charge up.
Parole agent Ron Glenane of the Orange County GPS unit works with two homeless Costa Mesa offenders.
He said charging a GPS device in restaurants, coffee shops and other businesses is a “last resort,” adding that there are other resources.
Glenane said transient sex offenders can use outlets at the mandatory mental health group meetings or at the sites of other available programs, such as those for substance abuse and improving literacy. There are also parole outpatient clinics that have banks of outlets.
Glenane added that being homeless, as well as being a sex offender, can be stressful and further complicate the monitoring process.
Glenane said he prefers offenders to “have residences because it’s easier to keep an eye on them.”
Emily Troshynski, a criminologist from UC Irvine who now teaches at Drake University in Iowa,
said that while a voter-approved law limiting where sex offenders can live seemed to create safe spaces for children, it may have also contributed to the homeless population.
“I think when people voted, that little blurb we got that year looked good on paper,” Troshynski said. "[But] are we really keeping our communities safe, if we’re creating more homelessness and more transients? I would say we’re not.
“In my mind, a safe, functioning community would include a job and a place to live.”
Nevertheless, those on the streets are trying to find ways to stay connected.
Early Thursday morning, Hellbusch charged his phone in an unusual place — an outlet powering a home’s early Christmas display.
“Someone probably thought I was a kook,” he said.