No room for the homeless in suburbia?

 He caught my eye as I drove up O’Neil Parkway – straggly beard, matted hair, tattered clothes-it was the distinct look of the homeless and my head whipped around in a double take. He staggered down the street, eyes cast downward, muttering to himself.

For those not familiar with my So Cal neighborhood of Ladera Ranch, it is the Disney of master-planned suburbia.  It’s manicured, lush and disturbingly homogenous. Deviation, unless it’s in Christmas light selection is seriously frowned upon. The Ladera association won’t tolerate any brown spots on our lawns and when we left our garbage can outside our backyard fence for a couple of days it provoked an association letter referencing a bylaw stating that no garbage cans can be visible from the street. 

“Oh no…What are they going to do with this guy?” I groaned to baby Kolby in the backseat. She slurped on her pacifier in response.

I tentatively pulled my car over to the right thinking I would stop and talk to the man, but the vehicle on my tail honked at me for blocking the one lane road.  Flustered, I drove on home and told myself I’d stop the next time I saw him, which turned out to be exactly two days later.

I turned the corner on Antonio to grab some nosh before church at the golden arches (yes I know, I’m an egg McMuffin addict) and noticed there were three police cars on the shoulder with lights flashing. I looked around for the cause of disturbance, figuring it must be pretty big to garner soooo much attention, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. 

And then I saw him, the devious criminal in question and my mouth fell open-it was the same homeless man I recognized two days earlier, only this time surrounded by five policemen. The cops had their arms folded and were questioning the man. I stared in bewilderment.  Does it really take a posse of cops to deal with one guy?

After the recent death of Kelly Thomas in Fullerton, emotions are high, even in Ladera Ranch, and the police force are being very careful around delicate issues (like the mentally ill and homeless among our midst). 

I entered the drive-through and picked up my food, straining to see what was happening, and then quickly drove back around.  The police had cleared out and so had the man. I didn’t see him anywhere on the long stretch of road, so he must have been escorted in the back of their car to another location.

Now, Mission Viejo (which Ladera Ranch is a part of) doesn’t actually have a shelter for the homeless.  When perusing the Mission Viejo Homeless Shelters & Services for the Needy website, I noticed the nearest shelter is 13.08 miles away in San Clemente.  This alone is disturbing on so many levels because there is nowhere for the homeless man to go.  Did the cops drop him off at the city border or did they take him to the nearest shelter in another city that accepts the poor?

Ironically, according to a blog contributor from Watchdog.com, Mission Viejo doesn’t have a homeless problem.  “I’ve seen two people passing through who seem to be homeless, but I’m unaware of any homeless person living here. The homeless people I know of (a man and a woman) have mental issues, and they’ve already rejected the idea of going to shelters. The woman told me about her distrust for government and the system. She’s living on the street because that’s where she wants to live.”

In my opinion, if Mission Viejo doesn’t have a homeless problem, it’s only because the homeless are clearly not welcome here. Now, I recognize this isn’t about the police–the cops are just doing their job (and I am so grateful)–it’s a much deeper issue that goes to the very heart of humanity.

It’s as if we, in Ladera Ranch/Mission Viejo pretend the marginalized in society don’t exist, when the truth is-in this economy-we are all merely one natural disaster or bad decision away from being homeless ourselves.  It’s just that most of us have become so skilled in image management you would never know the true state of our financial affairs. 

Much of Ladera Ranch is in debt up to their eye-balls, properties are foreclosing every day and most people are desperately trying to hold onto homes whose value has plummeted by half.  The only difference between this homeless guy and many of us is a credit card and a job we are clinging on to for dear life.  And our coping mechanism may not be in a brown paper bag, but we find it in an old prescription for anti-depressant meds sitting in our medicine cabinet.

And yet despite the overwhelming economic woes, I get the impression, though no one says it out loud, that having the eyesore poor (i.e. homeless) in plain sight might lower our home values (even more) or somehow destroy the neighborhood. I can only guess the film crew for my Real Housewife neighbor would take every precaution to leave the homeless guy out of the shots in our little paradise.

Why are we so afraid of poverty and brokenness? It’s not a contagious disease. Is this really who we want to be- people living in a gilded cage with no room for the less fortunate?

I understand the appeal of a place like Ladera Ranch. It woos me with its Mr. Rogers charm, but a nagging feeling remains, at what cost have we created our idyllic little utopia?

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