Dont Be Poor in Orange County

A Holiday Story of Homelessness

Photo by Nick ShouSvetlana King isn't your typical Orange County homeless person. She's a former professional gymnast from Ukraine. Has a college education. Isn't addicted to drugs. Isn't mentally ill.

But she's unlucky.

"I've been in shelters since June," King said. "First, I stayed at an emergency shelter in Huntington Beach for 56 days. They usually let women stay there for only 30 days, but they let me extend my stay twice, until they had another woman who needed a room. So after I filed for divorce and got a restraining order against my husband, I went to an interfaith shelter in Costa Mesa. But they only let first-time visitors stay there for five days, and after that, only for three days each month."

So on Sept. 1, after much searching, King relocated to a Christian church-affiliated shelter in San Juan Capistrano. "I arrived there on Sept. 1," King said. "At this place, there were drug addicts and mental patients all in one house, and because it was a Christian house, they put everyone together. There were seven or eight other women there and only one bathroom, and everyone was fighting over who could use the bathroom to put on their makeup. There were a lot of selfish conflicts, but I was really quiet."

Noticing her silence, one of the shelter's managers told King she seemed depressed and arranged for her to go to a hospital in Laguna Beach, where a doctor wrote out a prescription for Prozac. "When I started taking the medication, I noticed a change in my personality," she said. "It helped me to forget my problems, but I still wanted to talk to my lawyer and get a job to help pay for my divorce. But during the first two weeks, they said I couldn't leave the house, make phone calls or write any letters. They wouldn't help me look for a job."

Nonetheless, King began taking computer classes twice a week and began a job-training program at a nearby retail store. Because she had no car and couldn't afford a monthly bus pass, she commuted on a hand-me-down bicycle she got through the shelter. But a few days before Thanksgiving, King said, one of the shelter's managers told her that she had to quit her computer classes to help the shelter with holiday season fund-raising efforts.

"On the Monday before Thanksgiving, they told me I could not go to my Tuesday computer class," she said. "They wanted me to work at their office on the other side of town. I told them I would go there today and they said to hurry up because the office closed at 4 p.m. and it was already 2 p.m. So I got on my bike to go stuff envelopes."

King said she was pedaling as fast as she could down a sidewalk, when her bike hit an uplifted concrete slab and she went flying into a tree. The accident left her unable to stand. "People were looking at me from their cars, but they kept driving," she said. "A bus came by and I lifted my hand and the driver stopped and got me in the bus."

King had torn a ligament in her leg, which she had injured as a gymnast years earlier. Although the shelter arranged for a hospital visit, she says, the director told her she had outstayed her welcome. "They said that God was punishing me for not listening to them and that I was making them feel guilty about the accident," she said.

King spent the next two days looking for other shelters. But by Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, she still hadn't found one that would take her right away. So at 4 p.m., after begging the shelter's director to let her stay long enough to find new housing, she limped her way to a nearby church and sat on a bench while dropping dimes into a pay phone, still trying to contact a shelter that would take her in.

"I was getting cold and needed a toilet," she said. "I saw a retirement house and asked them if I could use their bathroom and get a cup of hot water. I went back to the bench and saw a light in one of the church buildings. One of the doors was unlocked and I went in. I was going to try to sleep in there, but the alarm went off."

Within minutes, King was face to face with a pair of Orange County sheriff's deputies. After hearing her story, they dialed the telephone number of every church in San Juan Capistrano. Finally, they got through to the secretary of Calvary Chapel, who picked King up at the substation and arranged for her to spend the night at a nursing home. The secretary then called the wife of the church's pastor, who told her to call her mother, Marjorie Baker. That night, Baker allowed King to sleep at her house.

At press time, King was still walking on crutches and was still staying with Baker. But she has to find a new temporary home before Christmas, when several out-of-town family members will be staying at Baker's house. Jan Palermo, a friend of a distant relative of King who lives in Texas, is trying to help her find new housing.

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