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.

"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.

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.

Marini's project is to organize the homeless to press for improvements in the conditions in which they subsist. Shelter is a goal, but a distant one; more immediate needs include storage and showers. The Roundtable's Friday-afternoon meetings attract anywhere from 10 to 25 people, with a core of half a dozen who show up every week. Most are homeless, but a few housed anarchists and outreach workers also attend.

In April, Marini led a handful of homeless into the Santa Ana City Council chambers to announce the group's existence and to demand an end to what the Roundtable described as harassment by the police, including early wake-ups, tickets for violating the city's no-camping ordinance (which bans public sleeping, but often isn't enforced in the Civic Center) and baggage confiscations. Soon afterward, on a Tuesday morning, the Roundtable mounted its first homeless defense storage center, but the city truck, which normally comes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, wasn't seen that day. Nor did the truck come the following Thursday or any day for more than a month.

*     *    *

At a Roundtable meeting in May, Ed, a Civic Center veteran who asked to be identified only by his first name, rips into Tim Houchen, a relative newbie, who had been arguing that members ought to pick up trash around the Civic Center as a way of showing their seriousness, their wish to be "productive members of society." The Santa Ana bureaucrats who sit in offices above the Civic Center "are very busy people," Houchen had just explained. "They don't have a lot of time. Then they look down and see us being idle all day."

Ed tells him to "stop putting that fantasy out there"—that the city will ease up on the homeless if only the homeless will keep the place cleaner. A city worker named Jose is paid to pick up litter in the Civic Center, he argues. "I'll take my plate and cup and put it in the trash, but as for [cigarette] butts, that's Jose's job. I'm gonna leave some out for him," Ed says, provoking laughter from some of the group. Houchen forces a Cheshire cat smile, deeply chagrined.

Ed's skepticism has roots in not-too-distant history. In the late 1980s and early '90s, Santa Ana more or less declared war on its homeless and used police sweeps to try to drive them out of town, but it only drove them as far as the wealthy Floral Park neighborhood, whose residents began complaining of being accosted by tramps while walking their dogs or watering their lawns late at night.

About that word: tramp. It's Ed's word. He uses it to describe himself and others who do without a fixed abode. The 56-year-old will tell you, breaking into hoarse laughter that sounds like coughing, that he is no "master tramp." A master tramp has the skills needed to live outdoors, and Ed doesn't have them. He's an "indoor tramp." He finds covered places to sleep—not in the Civic Center, but nearby.

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Santa Ana's relations with its homeless are colored by its relations with the rest of Orange County. Santa Ana—not without reason—always suspects it is being dumped on by other cities. Anecdotal evidence suggests many, probably most, denizens of the Civic Center didn't reside in Santa Ana before they became homeless, but gravitated from other cities, other counties, other states.

The gravitational force that draws the homeless to the Civic Center is the plentiful food served up by churches, temples and freelance do-gooders. There is so much food on offer in the Civic Center that some of it—freshly made sandwiches sealed in Ziploc baggies, steaming bowls of Rescue Mission chili—ends up in the trash.

Another draw is handy access to county health and welfare offices, as well as the courts, where the homeless must go when they get a ticket for sleeping in public or having too many bags, and the county jail, into and out of which some of the homeless rotate. Still, while Santa Ana likes to complain that other cities dump their homeless, at least three cities—Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Laguna Beach—provide a basic service to such residents that Santa Ana does not: storage for their belongings.

 

*     *     *

Officer Castellanos is a barrel-chested, head-shaving, wraparound-shades-wearing member of the Santa Ana Police Department's Homeless Evaluation Assessment Response Team, which patrols the Civic Center, getting to know the homeless and offering assistance, sometimes helping people reunite with family elsewhere. Relations between the police and the homeless are improved, Marini says.

Castellanos is seen as an exception to that trend. Reputed to be a former Marine drill sergeant (when I asked, he said he wouldn't answer any questions), he brings a gruff, authoritarian approach to his interactions. The homeless say they feel disrespected by him.

One morning, Castellanos pulls up in his squad car and, without getting out, demands to know who owns each bag in the storage defense center. Houchen and Lorenzo Benitez, another Roundtable member, patiently rattle off the names of each owner, pointing out that all are in the immediate vicinity, except for one man who is in the hospital. They fib, but only a little. Castellanos drives off, having made his point. By enforcing the requirement that each bag owner be physically present, he has shown that the cops still run the Civic Center.

Marini, 31, is also strongly built, also a head-shaver. Castellanos' authoritarian demeanor, Marini says, reminds him of his Italian father, with whom he often butted heads and who bequeathed to him what has developed into his church-wary, post-traditional Catholicism. Marini is coaching the Roundtable in a confrontational direction. Like his mentor Smith, Marini rarely has anything good to say about county or city efforts to address the problems of the homeless.

There is, for example, no year-round, public shelter in Orange County. Voters here have long viewed the so-called chronic homeless—those who don't qualify for housing programs, and thus land in the Civic Center—as a burden they feel no obligation to shoulder. In 1995, the Los Angeles Times took a poll and headlined the resulting article "Poverty Seen as Sign of Personal Weakness in O.C."

Addiction, inability to get or keep a job—depending on your point of view, these could be seen as personal weaknesses. On the other hand, a certain amount of homelessness could be seen as an inevitable consequence of capitalism, one that has long been treated as if it were a sanitation problem. Then there are the mentally ill. Nobody seems to know what to do with them, although Santa Ana police officer Randy Beckx managed to get federal funding to support a task force to help deal with the issue (see Nick Schou's "The Force Is With Him," Nov. 21, 2002).

When Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man, died after being beaten by Fullerton police officers in 2011, public outrage prodded the Fullerton City Council to create a task force to propose solutions. It recommended the creation of a year-round shelter—one that would be open 24 hours a day and offer treatment for mental illness and addiction (which often go hand-in-hand)—to replace the seasonal, nighttime-only shelter housed each winter at the city's National Guard armory.

Last year, the county, led by Supervisor Shawn Nelson, a Fullerton resident, struck a deal to purchase a former Linder's furniture store on State College Boulevard as a potential year-round shelter site. But NIMBYs (those adhering to the philosophy of "not in my back yard") crawled out of the neighborhoods surrounding the site and howled their opposition. The city council killed the plan. Jaded as I am, I expected Nelson to shrug his shoulders and say, "Well, I tried." But I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he and others haven't given up.

In late May, in a gray industrial park in Costa Mesa, the county's Commission to End Homelessness met. Karen Roper—the county's top staffer on homeless issues, who worked hundreds of hours on the now-dead Fullerton shelter proposal—reported on continuing efforts aimed at establishing not one, but two year-round shelters: one in Anaheim, on a property recently purchased by that city at Harbor Boulevard near the 91 freeway; the other in Santa Ana, in a yet-to-be-determined site in one of the city's industrial zones.

"We're further along than we've ever been," Roper told her fellow commission members. "This dream is going to happen, y'all. We're going to have a year-round shelter and multiservice center."

Marini, who was in the audience when the meeting began, had left by the time Roper gave her optimistic assessment. He's heard it before.

*     *     *

In the months after he launched the Roundtable, Marini felt a renewed flowering of his faith. Action, not ritual, was the spur. Throwing himself into daily service to the poor, he found Christian mythology making "a lot more sense" to him. On Holy Thursday, he showed up in the Civic Center at 6 a.m. to wash feet.

The Roundtable is strictly secular. Early on, Ed shot down a proposal by fellow member Houchen to open the Friday meetings with prayer. Outside the group, Marini uses religious analogies to frame the struggle. In April, "during this Lenten season," Marini admonished the Santa Ana City Council to "be more like Christ, not more like Rome," as he relayed a complaint about a man being awakened by a cop's shoe tapping against his face.

 

Later, Marini elaborated to me: "Who is Christ? Christ is the poor, and the structures that maintain the status quo are Rome."

Yet Marini's confrontational strategies seem rooted more in Occupy than the church. At a Roundtable meeting, Marini stresses the importance of vigilance in maintaining the storage defense center. "If we can't do this, how are we going to be when we try to occupy a building?" he asks.

In the long month between the group's first attempt at creating a storage defense center and the 90-degree morning on which the city truck reappeared, laxity set in. The homeless stopped grouping their bags together. When the truck did show up, the group was unprepared. Marini blamed himself.

Still, in attempting to organize the homeless, a few leaders have emerged, including Ed and Houchen, a burly former construction worker. But the Roundtable's meetings tend toward disorder. People jump in and say what's on their mind, regardless of topic. Marini listens respectfully, gives everyone a chance to speak, then subtly navigates back to an agenda he writes on a poster-size sketchpad propped against a bench.

A favored distraction of the homeless is to carp about "weekenders"—poor-but-housed immigrant families who come to the Civic Center on weekends to partake of free meals and other goodies. Some resent the weekenders for intercepting the handouts of clothing and sleeping bags they say are rightfully meant for the homeless. Marini has little patience for this kind of talk. After listening to it at meeting after meeting, he finally blows his stack in late May. If they want to keep talking like this, he angrily tells the group, they can form "a fucking committee" of their own.

This maneuver, which successfully shuts down the whining, would never have flown in Occupy, with its worship of leaderless consensus. The Roundtable isn't Occupy, but one of many seeds sown by that movement's brief flowering. "Most [Occupiers] just want action," Marini says. "They don't want to put in the time, all these meetings."

*     *     *

In June, shit gets real.

That's when Marini accosts Castellanos, accusing him of threatening to break the fingers of a homeless man who was being searched.

"Who the fuck do you think you are, and what the fuck do you think you're doing?" Marini screams as he recounts the incident to the Roundtable.

The tête-à-tête concludes with Marini promising to destroy Castellanos' career and the officer telling the activist he can't wait to take him down, according to Marini. The verbal attack was intended to embarrass Castellanos in front of the homeless, Marini says.

Later, I ask Castellanos' boss, Santa Ana Police Commander Ruben Ibarra, about Marini's tactics.

"He is confrontational, and he does swear at the officers when they're doing their job," Ibarra says. "For [Marini] to berate them while they're doing their job . . . I think it's unfortunate that he takes it out on the officers. But that's his right to voice his opinion. They're directed to continue to do their job in a professional manner. As long as he doesn't impinge on their ability to do their job, there shouldn't be an issue. And there hasn't been."

As to Castellanos' alleged behavior, Santa Ana Police Chief Carlos Rojas reported in mid-June he hadn't received any formal complaints from the public. "If we get complaints, we'll look at them," he said. As I finished writing this story, Roundtable participant Igmar Rodas said he was preparing to file complaints on behalf of several homeless people.

Both Ed and Houchen are feeling emboldened these days. After the Roundtable meeting in which Marini tells of his confrontation with Castellanos, Ed and Houchen sit on a bench, conversing with Cindy Avila. A housed person, Avila founded a group called Churches for Community. For a couple of years, she has been meeting with Santa Ana city officials, urging the creation of a check-in center for the homeless that would offer storage for their belongings.

Houchen should be included in those meetings, Ed tells Avila. The homeless want a seat at the table. "They're going to do what they're supposed to do," Ed says, referring to city officials. "We're going to make 'em. This is war. We're operating from a position of power here. You're going to see how powerful we are."

Nearby, Marini is beaming. This is what he wants: for the homeless to take charge of their struggle.

 

Later, I ask Ed why the homeless are in a position of power. He refers to the county's Commission to End Homelessness, its "Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness" and its failure to make use of public money supposedly earmarked for that goal.

"They ain't doing shit," he says. But, as the commission's members repeatedly emphasized at the May meeting, the commission has no budget, no money at all.

On June 12, the Santa Ana City Council holds a special meeting on the topic of homelessness. It's a love-in. Roundtable members speak; council members praise them and talk of a new shelter, of a storage/check-in center, of giving the homeless a seat at the table. It is everything the Roundtable members would want to hear. The only angry voice in the room is Marini's, still hectoring the council about Christ and the cross. As for the council's happy talk, he's heard it before. "Now we have to hold them to their promises," Marini says.

A few days later, the city truck makes its Tuesday-morning sweep through the Civic Center, picking up untended belongings. Marini isn't there; he's leaving for a week's vacation later that day. A cop remarks to Roundtable member Ana Ambriz about the group not having its leader.

"We don't need no leader," she replies. "We are our own leader. I don't need no one to speak for me. I can speak for myself if I have something to say."

The truck concludes its run from Broadway to Ross, then departs. No attempt is made to challenge the Roundtable's storage defense center, which is being guarded by Houchen, Ed and Benitez.

"We getting some respect, man!" Ed says.

Meanwhile, homeless people are reporting pleasanter interactions with Castellanos. He is now said to be respectful and friendly. I catch Marini on his way out of town and tell him this.

"That's great," he says. "I'm all about the change."

 

Getting organized
Josue Rivas

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