By David Whiting
May 12, 2016
Spend a day along the Santa Ana River with Julia Cross, a nurse, and the mysteries of faith, hope and redemption unfold.
Carrying a kit of medical supplies, Cross pauses before four small tents that look like they’ve been outside for years, because they have. She calls out. Heidi Sanchez emerges between piles of clothes, cooking items – things we’d consider garbage but are, for her, means for survival.
Sanchez is 31 years old. Most of her teeth are gone, and the few that remain look like stalactites. She was 9 weeks old when her mother died. She was 13 when she ran away from Orangewood Children’s Home in Orange. She’s lived more than half her life homeless and for three years has remained in this spot.
In recent months, Sanchez and Cross have seen the homeless population along the Santa Ana River spike to more than 500 people. The reasons are many. But what matters is where we – as a county – go from here. For answers, Cross agrees to a bicycle ride-along.
Cross works for the Illumination Foundation, a nonprofit that helps the homeless, particularly homeless kids. She patrols the Santa Ana River twice weekly by bicycle because she can cover far more ground than she could on foot. On this day, she will cover 25 miles.
Quietly Pentecostal, she asked to work this area and also regularly visits Skid Row in Los Angeles.
“We’re here,” Cross declares against all odds, “to end homelessness.”
Cross, who grew up in Maine with a father who was a doctor and a mother who was a nurse, admits that ending homelessness is a big mission. To make that happen, she says, it’s critical that nonprofits work together seamlessly and selflessly, something that remains a challenge. Fortunately, the nonprofits have help.
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Individuals with food, clothing and blankets visit this river of concrete that slices through Orange County from the mountains to the sea.
HOLDING ON TO HOPE
For most of us, the Santa Ana River is a strip of gray we drive over. Yet as Cross roams the river’s banks there is a community, too, one with an almost post-apocalyptic feel.
People here live without running water, electricity, heat. Some are mentally ill. Others are addicts. Many are both.
But listen patiently and you hear wisdom, reminders of how mortal we are; how a twist or turn can send any life on a spiral no one would want and some can’t escape.
Sanchez is the de facto leader of her little tribe as well as the defender of the patch of hardscrabble they’ve staked out on the south side of the Chapman Avenue overpass. Her rules include no minors. “They should have something better than this.”
She points to another homeless camp across the river and says more tents pop up there every week. She also says there are more deaths, too, usually from heroin overdoses. She says she used to be a heroin addict, but quit. Now, she carries naloxone to reverse the effects of others’ overdoses.
Sanchez has given birth to two sons. Both are cared for by others. One is less than 3 months old.
Manny Sanchez, a 30-year-old veteran, sits on the ground next to her cuddling Heathen, a pit bull-mix black puppy. He says he served in the Marines for eight years, doing four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He says he’s the father of the baby boy.
He gazes across the wide ribbon of concrete. He says he has two other sons who live with his parents in Shawnee, Kan. After he finishes taking some required Child Protective Services classes, he hopes to move Heidi and the baby into that home.
Wearing a gray hoodie and wrap-around sunglasses, Heidi Sanchez laughs. “We’ll have our own little soccer team.”
Her background is typical. And then it’s not. Each person Cross treats on her twice-weekly sojourns along some 40 miles of the Santa Ana River has a unique and telling story filled with caution, struggle and, often, optimism.
A woman walks up to where Heidi Sanchez sits and sets down a half-dozen white plastic grocery bags. They’re filled with pudding cups, applesauce, Ensure drinks. The woman smiles, says little, appears shy.
There is a quiet chorus of thank-yous. Without a chair, Heidi Sanchez squats on dirt and points out that such help is common. Church groups come several times a week (sometimes several times a day), while police from Orange come around too and are respectful and helpful.
The woman who brought the groceries notices the puppy. She leaves and comes back carrying a big bag of dog food. Her name is Kongsamay Laaw and she was born and raised in Laos. Laaw cared for her mother for six years until she recently succumbed to Alzheimer’s.
Laaw explains she grew up Buddhist, but after a divorce and the death of her daughter, she found peace as a Christian. Of making the trek from Garden Grove, where she lives, to the Santa Ana River, Laaw says, “Sometimes different things in life happen, and if we don’t have Jesus in our life, we give up hope.”
Under the Katella Avenue bridge near Angel Stadium, Cross examines a woman’s finger. The woman is young, painfully thin, chatters and carries two small vials of medicine. She says she needs a syringe. Cross ignores the request and focuses on the woman’s finger.
It is white, swollen. The nail is falling off. Cross says she needs to go to a hospital. The woman has red hair and pale blue eyes and she says she was bitten by a brown widow spider.
Just above, Karin Mclain shimmies down a ledge where she bunks under the bridge and makes her way along a steeply sloped retaining wall. She is 47 with classic Norwegian cheekbones, blond hair, smooth skin. She could easily walk through Dove Canyon Country Club without questions.
Mclain says her stepfather was a well-known newspaper editor in the Northwest – her story checks out – and she has a 19-year-old daughter. She’s worked as a musician, florist and short-order cook. She says a back injury left her disabled and homeless. Her only belongings are a backpack and a sleeping bag.
After watching Cross tend to the finger, Mclain hauls herself back to her ledge using a rope. She promises that her days of living homeless are almost over. She says she’s been on the street for three years.
As Cross cruises the river past Featherly Park in Yorba Linda, she watches for more ropes, holes in fences. She says those are signs of homeless camps.
Cross spots a break in a fence. She walks through and discovers a recently burned encampment. Nearby is a fresh camp. In a loud voice, Cross identifies herself as a nurse and offers help. No one responds.
“I’m worried someone could be afraid to seek medical care,” Cross explains. “Some feel very judged when they go into facilities. They feel it’s better to get no treatment than feel humiliated.”
Convinced no one is home, Cross moves on. “There are a host of reasons people remain homeless,” she explains. “Some hide from the world. Others have a fear that’s bigger than the reality.”
As Cross prepares to check out another homeless camp, she confides her own worst fear is someone dying in a dumpster alone – without family or friends. “I’d rather have the honor of them dying in my shelter than in a dumpster without anyone knowing their name.”
That night, a cold wind blows. Rain falls. But the Santa Ana River stays dry – mostly.