From Canyon To Cove: Riding along with the homeless

They call her "Mom." She calls them "kids." But Faye Chapman isn't nearly old enough to be the mother of the homeless people she ferries to the Alternative Sleeping Location in Laguna Canyon from a designated pickup location at the bus depot on Broadway.

Chapman has an easy familiarity with the homeless, some of whom have obvious physical or mental disabilities. A few of the men tease and joke with her — some of the jokes are off-color and might offend most women — but Chapman smiles breezily and keeps to her mission.

The van makes several trips throughout the day, taking ASL dwellers downtown in the morning after they have had breakfast. In the afternoon, at 4:30 p.m., they are eager to get back to the facility, a large, square room that can hold as many as 60 people.

In the evening, the ASL residents are in the charge of staff members with the Friendship Shelter, but during the day, the Laguna Resource Center, a volunteer group, makes sure they get lunch, and that any medical needs and other necessities are attended to. That's where the van comes in, taking residents to the Laguna Beach Community Clinic for appointments, as well as providing regular transport between the center and downtown.

Chapman is always looking for people to drive the van. She'd like to find 30 people, to spread out the duties to one day a month. She has about 15 signed up so far, and when someone doesn't show up, it is usually Chapman who takes the wheel. But that's OK with the homeless, who are clearly delighted to see her and greet her warmly.

With Chapman driving, the rides up the canyon are fun, like a trip to summer camp.

"Sometimes we turn up the radio and sing," she said.

'A big family'

Donna Valenti is the Resource Center's only paid staff member. Valenti, a longtime volunteer, has been managing the day program for less than a month. The Resource Center's food bank and other facilities opened up August 1 in a rented space owned by the city on the lot that contains the ASL.

"It's like a big family," Valenti said of the day center, where she helps anyone who walks in, whether they are an official ASL resident or not. "Everybody helps everybody else. They are caring and helpful. I'm at home here."

The ASL is designated as a priority shelter for "Laguna Beach" homeless, those with close ties to the city or who have been homeless in Laguna Beach for some time. If there are open spots — mats on the floor — they can be used by those from outside the area. The shelter also has showers, laundry facilities, and, most importantly, caring people to help.

Valenti is pleased with the success of a new work program she initiated, in which residents are required to perform a chore every day for a week in return for a day bus pass. "They love working and they take it seriously," she said.

Valenti hopes the program will end up inspiring similar day programs for homeless people. "We're a work in progress, but we're up and running and people are here every day." In her first three weeks, she has helped five people obtain housing, she said, no small accomplishment.

At the bus depot, about 15 people, mostly men, crowd around the Resource Center's eight-passenger van. Those with large backpacks or bags pile them into the rear compartment. Chapman jumps out to help one fragile man climb from his wheelchair into the van. Another homeless man pitches in, folding up the wheelchair and carrying it to the back.

It takes about three trips to pick up everyone who wants a ride. On the last trip this day, which happened to be the hottest day of the year, one of the men told Chapman about a homeless man in the men's restroom next to the depot who needed help. Without a second thought, Chapman hopped out of the van and went into the men's room, returning with an older, somewhat confused gentleman who quietly followed her instructions to get in.

Many stories

Inside, Chapman asked everyone how their day was, and got an earful from a few riders. One man, who put his bicycle into the back compartment, said he rides to Dana Point harbor every day to visit with friends and possibly pick up a job at one of the restaurants.

He was a bartender for 20-some years and then stopped working to take care of his mother in her Laguna Beach home. When she went into a nursing home, the place he had called home was rented out to help pay her bills and he became homeless.

But the restaurants haven't done so well this summer, and now that tourist season is over, it's even worse. Now the ASL is his home, until things turn around for him.

Another man, who teaches tennis, said it was a good day: he had a couple of students.

Most of the riders are neatly dressed with clean clothes. Some of the women look like well-tanned tourists sporting large sunglasses and carrying their purses over their shoulders. Everyone's story is different.

One of the Resource Center's success stories is that of "The Tree Sitter," a young woman who used to spent her days and nights outside, sitting under a downtown tree. Volunteers tried many times to entice her into the shelter at night, to no avail, Chapman said. Finally she agreed, and has been an ASL resident ever since.

In the van, the Tree Sitter chatted gaily about the magnolias and how they are blooming beautifully this season. Chapman agreed. "It's because of all the love you are giving them," she said. The same could be said of the Tree Sitter.

The Resource Center is always in need of donations, and volunteers are being sought to mentor homeless people one-on-one. For more information, call Valenti at (949) 497-2959.

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