San Clemente resident Patrick Crosby isn't your stereotypical homeless person. He doesn't have a substance abuse problem, history of mental illness or shopping cart full of recyclables. A former computer engineer and amateur clarinetist who's also written an unpublished book about the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand (The Black Widow—Ayn Rand and the Cobwebs of Objectivism) Crosby's favorite activity is sitting in front of the computer—at the local library—researching U.S. constitutional law.
His interest in the law isn't accidental. In fact, Crosby is working overtime to have California's eviction laws overturned. Last July, he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in the U.S. District Court that would stop all evictions under California's "unlawful detainer" statutes, which give tenants five days to vacate a property after they've been served with an eviction notice. The suit—which names the City of San Clemente and the Orange County Sheriff's Department as defendants—argues that the unlawful detainer is a relic of the feudal system that originated in 1381 in the time of King Richard II—and the Black Death—and that the five days in which tenants must respond to eviction notices is too short and therefore unconstitutional.
Crosby became homeless last April after he was evicted from an apartment he shared with a friend.
He fought the eviction in court, showing paperwork proving he'd paid his rent on time. On August 31, 2006, he won. But as he quickly discovered, overturning your eviction in court doesn't provide for any reward—like getting your apartment back. Without a roof over his head, Crosby's problems were just beginning.
"As a result of being homeless, I was under constant scrutiny by the police," he says.
He spent four days in the Orange County jail and, more recently, was banned from the Saddleback College library for looking at MySpace pages. It's a far cry from where Crosby was 30 years ago, working toward a degree in electrical engineering at Illinois Institute of Technology while also studying philosophy in extension courses at the University of Chicago—where he fell into the orbit of the objectivist Rand.
His path toward homelessness began in 1994 when he quit his job as a software engineer at Jet Propulsion Laboratories. After working for about a week as a telemarketer, he settled into less than full-time work: the occasional computer repair job and playing the clarinet for tips on the San Clemente Pier. That last gig earned him headlines in 2005 when the city fined him for performing without a business license and Crosby refused to pay.
The Orange County Register ran an October 21 story about Crosby that year, ("San Clemente Seeks C-Notes from Pier Clarinetist") highlighting the absurdity of the case. Thanks to the publicity, he was able to continue his performances, but says that he earns "barely" enough cash to buy food. Last spring, Crosby could no longer afford to pay rent and moved in with a friend. They alerted the landlord of his presence in the unit and paid an additional $50 per month.
But after a few months, Crosby received an eviction notice.
"At the end of the 30 days, I came home and the landlord's gardener was moving my stuff out by the trash and my roommate seemed to be cooperating."
Crosby called the police and pointed out that he hadn't received a formal eviction notice known as an unlawful detainer. The police let him move his belongings back in the apartment, but he received the formal notice five days later and suddenly found himself homeless.
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He refuses to say where he sleeps at night, except that he's found a place where he has a roof over his head as well as privacy, as long as he sneaks away before dawn. "I can't tell you where it is," he says. "It's part of the homeless code of confidentiality."
Several months after he filed his federal lawsuit, it is still mired in pre-trial legal wrangling—Crosby is acting as his own attorney. He recently typed up a 26-page response to a motion to have the case dismissed because he failed to serve the Orange County Sheriff's Department with a written notice of his lawsuit in a timely fashion. "Plaintiff is homeless and destitute . . . [and] has had financial difficulty in serving the defendants. For all these good reasons, plaintiff should be given more time."
Even though he says he has no illusions that his federal civil rights case will win him back his old apartment, he says he's determined to win in court. "My motive is to have justice for people who aren't wealthy enough to own their own residences. I want a level playing field. Right now, it's rigged." He says the fact that he successfully appealed his own eviction and still remains homeless shows that the laws are unfair. "It is as though the court says 'We will hear your appeal on your death sentence, but that's not going to stop you from being hanged.'"