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Opinion

Commentary: Views on Orange County homelessness depend on the vantage point

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A homeless woman arrives by bicycle to the Lighthouse Church in Costa Mesa in January.
(File Photo)

We all see things from a different point of view. And each vantage point is as real and lived as the next. A kaleidoscope of perspectives serves to illuminate, describe and define the ever-present experience of homeless conditions in our society. We each hold puzzle pieces that rely on one another in order to see the bigger picture.

We are, at best, a study in contrasts.

A retired teacher, a widow in her early 70s, purchased a home in an affluent Laguna Beach neighborhood, some 50-plus years ago. She and her husband set down roots there, raised a family, confronted an empty nest, rediscovered each other and embraced their retirement years together.

They shared a kind of love that never dies. The home had been a constant in their lives too. Even after the loss of her husband, it continues to be so for her. His memory lives on, filling each room he once occupied. A place of safety and security that she took for granted over the years.

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The property is large and peaceful, she tells me, so close to the ocean that she can hear the waves crash and feel the moisture in the air. She describes the ocean view with a type of enthusiasm that one might convey while the experience is new, rather than 50-plus years after it began. A person who seems to be genuinely happy in life and proud of her accomplishments.

She confides in me that she could never have imagined that the value of the property would rise to such a high level as it is today. She went on to say that she could never have foreseen how well she would be doing financially at this point in her life either. I can count on one hand how many times I’ve heard someone make that kind of observation.

One night, a few weeks ago, she heard noises coming from her backyard. She stated that her property is not fenced so it wasn’t unusual to hear wildlife roaming around in the dark. That’s why she didn’t bother to investigate.

The next morning, she rose to discover that her patio furniture had been reconfigured and boldly repurposed to accommodate the needs of several homeless people who appeared to have slept there the night before. Bedding, pillows and personal items were strewn about in such a way that it was not clear whether the items had been abandoned or were being used to stake a claim on the space they illegally occupied. Boundaries violated. Laws broken. Property rights ignored. Safety and security threatened. Innocence lost.

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A man in his early 50s grew up in Corona del Mar, another affluent community. The two communities are not far from each other, but the lifestyles of these two people could not be further apart. Twice divorced. Childless and penniless. This man found himself sleeping at the front stairs of a Buddhist Temple in downtown San Diego a few years ago.

Addiction ripped apart everything he ever strived to build. His marriages, his career, his home, his financial success, his vehicles, his reputation and the respect of his family – all destroyed by a phenomenon of craving that compelled him to put a needle in his arm, a drink in both hands and a compulsion in his life that was beyond his ability to manage or control. It robbed him of his dignity, his self-respect, his self-determination. His identity.

After repeated efforts at sobriety, the last attempt succeeded. Living clean and sober for four years now, he recently returned to the auto sales profession he previously excelled at. Formerly homeless and destitute, he now rents a comfortable apartment in Eastside Costa Mesa, and he goes to work every day. He doesn’t take his sobriety for granted either and attends weekly meetings where a commitment to sobriety is valued and shared. Sadly, these kinds of quiet miracles rarely make headlines.

And these types of success stories do seem to be the exception.

Two different cities. Two separate lives. Two very different people. Both impacted by homelessness in profound and life-changing ways. We each hold puzzle pieces that depend on one another in order to create a full picture. We need to listen and learn from our collective lived experience and from our different perspectives. That’s where growth and change begin. And that’s where healing is found.

Kathy Clinkenbeard lives in Costa Mesa.


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