The Force Is With Him

In a department once noted for its cruelty toward the homeless, Santa Ana cop Randy Beckx produced a revolution

Beckx and Brown have been trying to get Aaron off the streets for the past three months. "We've made a lot of progress with him," Beckx said. "Three months ago, he used to walk away from us without saying a word. Now he expects to see us at certain times and lets us know when we're late. And we try not to be late because we are trying to build trust."

Aaron has also been arrested for aggressive panhandling, camping, littering and public urination. "Our goal is to impact those areas," Beckx continued. "But we're really trying to get people like him into a clinic for treatment. So we'll talk to them and touch them. A lot of officers have gotten over the barrier of touching homeless people—giving them a handshake or a pat on the back. It goes a long way."

Photo by Nick Schou

Brown pulled into a few gas stations and then spotted Aaron at a service station, washing a white car. He and Beckx jumped out of the car and greeted Aaron, who seemed glad to see them. He was dressed in a dirty T-shirt and shorts. Beckx made him promise to stay put while he and Brown went to the nearby Mental Health Association multiservice center to find him a clean pair of pants and socks. The center provides homeless people with programs to combat substance abuse, find jobs and housing, and have fun.

Inside, roughly 50 homeless people played pool and made telephone calls while waiting for their clothes to get cleaned or to take a shower. Several of them waved at Beckx while he waited for someone to find the socks and pants. "Who let the fuzz in here?" one woman asked, smiling. Another woman pointed at Beckx and told her friend, "If you ever get chased by the cops, run to him. He'll bring you straight here instead of to jail."

Another woman walked up and told Beckx that she'd been in a room-and-board for three months, after completing a sober-living program. Beckx seemed delighted. He started talking about a homeless man who was living in a park whom he convinced to voluntarily agree to medical treatment and shelter. The treatment came too late to prevent the man from dying of terminal cancer.

"But when we visited him at the room-and-board, he looked at us, and for the first time, we had a real conversation. He smiled and said he really liked sleeping in a bed. That's where he died—in his own bed, and in his own room, instead of us finding his remains out in the bushes by the riverbed."

* * *

On their way to give the socks and pants to Aaron, Beckx and Brown came upon an abandoned-looking blue van in a parking lot next to an active construction site where an earthdigger dropped big chunks of concrete in a pile. A woman sat in the open doorway of the van, smoking a cigarette. As they pulled up to the van, a squad car arrived. The officer checked the van for weapons and drugs but didn't find any.

Photo by Nick Schou

Beckx and Brown interviewed the woman. She said she'd been homeless for years and had been living with a friend in the van for at least four months. She has children somewhere in Lake Elsinore. They're homeless, too. She used to have an apartment in Santa Ana and entertained dreams of working at the Chamber of Commerce, helping tourists. She had a prescription for lithium to treat her schizophrenia—but she hadn't been taking her pills.

Beckx and Brown convinced her to visit her psychiatrist in Fullerton. "We have a tracking system for mentally ill homeless people, so we know if they've had contact with a particular clinic," Brown explained. "She's been to a psychiatrist in Fullerton already, so we're going to take her there right now rather than have her go through a whole new set of people in Santa Ana."

While she brushed her hair in preparation for the visit, Brown jogged across the street to give Aaron his new clothes—and to tell him to wait there until they returned from Fullerton, so they could take him to the center for a shower.

* * *

Beckx estimates that he has known at least 10 homeless people who have died in the past several years. Some perished on the streets; others in shelters. He doesn't know what killed many of them because he never reads the autopsy reports. But he still has photographs he took of all the people who died, as well as those he has been able to help keep alive.

He also still has the four-year-old snapshot of the homeless man with the tumor who changed his life forever. At his office in the police department's Fourth Street substation, Beckx pulled a folder from his desk and proudly pointed at the photographs he has taken of various homeless people he has gotten to know over the years.

One woman had been homeless in downtown Santa Ana for 20 years. "She was one of the first people we assessed," he said. "We watched her long enough to convince the mental-health people to take her to the hospital. She was later placed in a shelter home. She has since recovered her physical health and doesn't want to be homeless any more."

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