United We Tramp: How Santa Ana's Homeless Rose Up

United We Tramp: How Santa Ana's Homeless Rose Up
Photo: Josue Rivas | Design: Dustin Ames

On a steamy morning in mid-May, an urgent cry pierces the sleepy languor of Orange County's Civic Center in Santa Ana.

One of the burdens of being homeless is having to keep all of your worldly possessions with you at all times; otherwise, you risk losing them to theft or confiscation. When you're homeless, your stuff becomes an anchor.

"Massimo! The truck!"

A city parks and recreation truck slowly makes its way along a paved walkway between Broadway and Ross Street, where the homeless live.

Getting organized
Josue Rivas
Getting organized
Massimo Marini and friends find shade
Andrew Galvin
Massimo Marini and friends find shade

Massimo Marini immediately moves toward it, with me in pursuit. He comes to a bench under which somebody has stashed four Hefty bags full of clothing and other personal items. As the truck passes, Marini stands over the bags, protecting them, ready to claim ownership if asked. At Marini's instruction, I do the same at the next bench down. These are my belongings, I am to say, if asked by one of the police officers who accompany the truck on its mission to confiscate untended stuff.

Our decoy works. We are not questioned. The truck slowly passes by the benches we have staked out.

Santa Ana police officers Joe Castellanos and Salvador Lopez walk beneath the trees next to the county's Hall of Finance, asking homeless people who owns what. They point to a neatly stacked set of cases and bed rolls propped against a tree trunk. "Whose is that?"

Nobody answers.

Kevin Eaton, a parks department employee, gets down from the truck and begins tagging the belongings with red Post-its, noting the date and the location. With the help of the officers, he loads the items onto the truck. They will be held for 90 days, during which time they can be retrieved by their owner(s).

Marini walks with the officers, occasionally interjecting himself into their conversations with the homeless. The officers brush him off: "I'm not talking to you, Massimo." He sticks with them, anyway. Later, he chats with Lopez about the possibility of letting the homeless use a shuttered bus terminal at the corner of Ross Street and Santa Ana Boulevard as a place to store their belongings.

Lopez says it'll take money. Where will that money come from?

Marini tosses out the name of a nonprofit that runs a storage center for the homeless in Anaheim.

They got money? Lopez wants to know.

They have donors, Marini replies.

When the officers arrive at a pile of stuff belonging to a man known as Termite, Marini persuades them not to take it. Termite is at a court-ordered drug class in Irvine, Marini says, and can't be in two places at once.

"Massimo says to leave this stuff," Castellanos tells Eaton. Then he orders Marini to make sure Termite's stuff looks neat.

*     *     *

One of the burdens of being homeless is having to keep all of your worldly possessions with you at all times; otherwise, you risk losing them to theft or confiscation. When you're homeless, your stuff becomes an anchor.

In the absence of any city-approved, permanent solution to the problem of having to keep all their possessions with them at all times, a group of homeless in the Civic Center have created a temporary one: people put their bags together, then a few stand watch while others are free to go about unencumbered. Besides its functional value, this "homeless defense storage center" is intended as a provocation, as the police insist that anyone who leaves the immediate vicinity has "abandoned" their property, thus subjecting it to confiscation.

Speaking to the Santa Ana City Council in June, Civic Center Roundtable member BrizyMae Gonzalez spells it the concern clearly: "We don't go to your home. We don't impound your stuff . . . You're doing that to us."

Civic Center Roundtable was launched by Marini in January, shortly after he moved out of the Catholic Worker house in Santa Ana. I met Marini a few years ago, during the early days of the Occupy movement. Last December, I ran into him again when I stopped by the Catholic Worker house to talk to Dwight Smith, the patron saint of Orange County homeless activists. Smith had just come out of surgery and wasn't getting around very well, so that night, I walked through the Civic Center with Marini and was impressed by how people came out of the shadows to tell him their latest problems, from being ticketed for violating Santa Ana's no-camping ordinance to getting tossed out of the county's Public Law Library while trying to charge a cell phone's battery.

Marini gave each person his full attention. They trusted Marini, which gave him the credibility to launch the Roundtable a month later. "He's doing things now that are far more radical than we are," Smith says. "My hat's off to him. I can't wait to see what he does next. . . . If I were younger, I'd like to think I'd be out there with him."

When I saw him in December, Marini was going through a dark night of the soul. His childhood Catholicism, the foundation of his activism on behalf of the poor, wasn't making sense to him anymore. He was in a sullen mood, and he was trying to find new reasons to go on with his work on behalf of society's most marginalized.

I prattled blithely about my own journey in and (mostly) out of this ancient tradition, Catholicism, passed down by my ancestors. I tried to articulate the value I found in the myth and tradition, without, I suggested, the need for literal belief. Marini listened impatiently. He was having none of my half-baked bullshit.

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