Hansen: Homeless hide in plain sight

You can stare at it all day long and still not see it: a darkened hovel wedged between two restaurants.

While patrons at Madison Square & Garden Cafe dine on $17 seared ahi salad, two feet away over a bamboo-covered wall is a cramped, squalid homeless camp littered with cheap vodka bottles, mouthwash containers and urine-soaked clothes.

A slab of concrete near the back of the small site suffices for a toilet. There is feces everywhere, including the walls.

Officially, the site sits on the now-empty Cottage restaurant property, 308 N. Coast Hwy., which closed in late 2012 and is undergoing remodeling with new owners.

Amid the debris, there is a pattern to the chaos. You can see the choices the homeless person has made, the things he likes and dislikes.

He switches between vodka and whiskey. The vodka can be any kind, whatever is on sale, but the whiskey is always Kessler.

And it's Bud Light, never Coors Light.

He smokes Pall Mall, and you can see where he sometimes falls asleep — or passes out — while smoking. There are cigarette burn marks on the blankets.

Inexplicably, he was reading "Insight" by Sylvia Browne, a controversial psychic reader and spiritual medium who died in November. She was frequently criticized for making psychic predictions regarding missing children that were later proven false.

Near the book is the Christmas card. It's wet but personalized with a handwritten note. The ink is starting to smear.

"We wish you a very Merry Christmas. Stay warm! Use the peroxide for your teeth! There are still people who care, — Justa and Bo."

There is a phone number.

I think about the words on the card.

It's clear we are talking about a chronic homeless person with some kind of support network.

There is a stark acceptance to the reality of his homelessness that's surprising. It's as if they are saying, "We know you are who you are, but we still love you."

I look away from the card and see the bottle of peroxide. It's nearly full.

I leave the site and when I get home I call the number.

Laguna resident Bo Calabrese answers, and he tells me the story.

It was Christmas Eve when Calabrese met "Reagan" at the Ralphs. It was cold that night, in the high 40s.

"We saw him at the grocery store, and he was extremely cold," Calabrese said. "He was in a pair of shorts, no boots or anything like that, and a T-shirt. He had to be just freezing. So I went home, and we packed up a bunch of belongings and went to go meet him."

Calabrese said every Christmas Eve he does this, helps someone, for about the last 15 years.

"It's something my family and I always do every Christmas," he said. "We go out and look for someone who is unfortunate and possibly homeless. And a lot of the clothes that we don't use anymore – jackets and ski gear and stuff like that – we pack up. And we get some food together and I also put some cash in a Christmas card."

So on that cold Christmas Eve night, Calabrese went to Reagan's "home" and gave him the card, a red ski jacket and sturdy boots, among other things.

"The reason we gave him the peroxide was because he had a toothache. His mouth was getting all infected, and he was in a lot of pain."

Reagan is known in the homeless community around town, joining about 60 other homeless.

Those who know him say Reagan has changed recently and not in a good way. You can see it in his face, they say.

"It's bloated," said one man who did not want to give his name. "Something ain't right. But he's still around."

You can spot him now because of his new red ski jacket.

But you won't see him when he sleeps, even though he lives in plain sight.

While we eat, shop and gossip, he lies quietly next door in an invisible corner, protected by a canopy of shadows.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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