By Eric Heinz
David was stranded in California, miles away from his hometown in Missouri. A bus had dropped him off with only a backpack near Oceanside. He walked from there to Vista, then to San Clemente.
“That’s a long ways,” he said.
The trip was spontaneous. After years of meth abuse and stints in prison, he had worn out his family back home.
“I’ve been struggling with methamphetamines ever since I was 13 years old,” David said. “And then about six years ago … I just got on a bus and headed to California. I’d never seen the ocean before.”
When he got to San Clemente, he went to the beach to buy and use drugs like so many other users.
“I met someone and got speed (meth),” David said, adding that he also came across a bible study group. “I asked them to pray for me, and one said, ‘I’ll come back at 6 o’clock if you really want to change your life.’”
The man was Jeff, an overseer at Set Free Men’s Ranch, a retreat located just outside Lake Elsinore that allows men to live there and get sober. There is an adjacent, separate ranch for women. Many of the residents of the ranch were found on the streets of San Clemente.
What’s taught on the ranch is rooted in Christianity. And David’s commitment to Christianity is what he says has enabled him to thrive at the ranch. When we interviewed him, he had been at the ranch for six weeks. His complexion was healthy, though he had a dime-sized fresh scar on his noise. He spoke with breathless confidence, which had an effect oscillating between inspiring and untethered.
Only time will tell if David’s recuperation at the ranch and commitment to Christianity can sustain his sobriety. He is expected to stay for 60 days at the ranch, and if he does well, he can stay on at the ranch as an overseer, a middle manager of sorts. If David is an exemplary overseer, he could be eligible for a six-month work commitment at a thrift store. Those who make it through that next level of their sobriety can live in a group home in San Clemente while they work for the thrift stores.
“That’s the plan. I’m just letting god take it day by day,” David said.
The man behind this operation is Paul “J.P.” Spitz. He owns the ranch, two thrift stores in San Clemente and runs a work program for people looking to break their addiction cycles. He is a Christian minister and uses sermons on the beach as a way to help homeless people and drug abusers. Jeff, who routinely finds people like David and brings them to the ranch, went through Spitz’s program and knows what it’s like to be without a home and addicted to drugs in San Clemente. He knows what kind of help is needed for people like David.
“We could have taken a picture of him and put it online and complained about what he’s doing. Or we could offer a solution: be kind to him, instead of chasing him away,” Jeff said. “There’s one less person on the streets and one less person to complain about.”
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Before coming to the ranch, Jeff was one of San Clemente’s most prolific drug dealers, according to his own record. He had a regular job as an exterminator, but he was able to function in both worlds, despite using drugs himself.
“As long as it didn’t affect my job, (my employers) didn’t care,” Jeff said. “I wasn’t up to any good. I had 33 noise complaints (because of parties) in one year from the police department.”
“Somebody burned my house down when I was living on (Avenida) Granada. After it was burned down, the police said, ‘You know, you should probably just leave town.’ That’s how many problems I had caused.”
Jeff said he started smoking marijuana when he was 10 years old. When he got older, he got into LSD, then progressed into cocaine and meth. At his addiction’s peak, Jeff said he was always on heroin, pills and drunk. His relationships with his family, whatever was left of them, were hard to maintain.
“I never really had a relationship with my dad. He didn’t hate me. We just didn’t get along,” Jeff said. “My mother was a real nice lady, but she had enough of me. I was tolerated, probably. My brother would say ‘Why are you here? This is just going to cause problems,’ on a holiday like Thanksgiving or something. I had a lot of friends, but nobody close because nobody knew what I was doing, not even the people I was living with. They didn’t realize that I was selling drugs like this. They just knew I always had them. Very few knew that.”
Jeff said he sold to all kinds of people. Those who had money would pick up wholesale amounts of the drug of the day and then distribute from there.
Jeff eventually started going to free meals provided by a local church that a friend had brought him to. At those lunches, he said he knew almost all of the people who were served, but he said they were all homeless, had bought drugs or drank with him, and he said most of them were based in San Clemente. That’s how he met Spitz and heard about the ranch.
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The ranch is not what one would typically see in commercials for high-end rehabilitation facilities. It’s a far cry from seeing a bunch of clear-skinned, bright-eyed, J. Crew-clad, majority white people sitting on a marble-floor patio in a multimillion-dollar mansion and gazing out into the horizon as their drug addictions melt with the sunset.
No, this is much more “primitive,” the word Spitz used to describe the conditions.
Between 40 and 80 men live in three separate dormitories on the ranch, clumped together in three bunk-bed style facilities. There’s a kitchen in one of them, but the rest are nothing more than beds crammed into a room with a bathroom and shower.
“As you can see, there’s not a lot of room in here that we’re not using,” Spitz said as he walked into one of the living quarters.
The men do odd jobs onsite, from fixing cars to woodworking, but most of the revenue for operating procedures comes from either donations or from Spitz’s two San Clemente thrift shops. According to a 1997 Los Angeles Times article, Spitz once operated a charity in Capistrano Beach that generated hundreds of thousands of dollars from “store sales” and donations.
There is also a makeshift orchard on the ranch and a pool to conduct baptisms. There is a large, white pitch tent with various office and folding chairs arranged in rows to form a church.
No health services are provided. There is not a standardized detox process. Chocolate, not methadone, seems to work better for heroin addicts, Spitz said, adding that the ranch also does not accept payments from healthcare providers.
Just about anyone can come to the ranch to get sober except for sex offenders due to the ranch’s proximity to a school.
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The hierarchy of the ranch starts with Spitz at the top. Jeff is second in command, with a series of overseers are below him and a few assistant overseers below them.
On arrival, clients are greeted by an overseer. One such man goes by the name “New York,” who went through the ranch’s recovery program 20 years ago and has stayed on as an office captain—denoted by the Soviet Army officer’s cap he wears. Many of the overseers and clients have nicknames, such as “Big Haas” and “Boss Man.” Signs with the words “Jesus Freak” hang on various portions around the office as well as other areas of the ranch.
There are bible study sessions each week, which are known as the Biker’s Jamboree. Every man at the ranch attends these studies as a way to remind them to stay sober. Spitz said the ranch is “unapologetically evangelically Christian,” but it is universally inclusive.
“We take everybody, but if someone knows something about you, then everyone knows,” Spitz said. “There are no secrets at the ranch.”
The men in the office coordinate intakes and donations, and help the ranch’s residents schedule court appearances, probation requirements or other obligations. They also have to keep track of the chores and jobs the residents do, which include cleaning and cooking. When a shipment of fruit arrives from a local charity, all the members of the ranch form an assembly line to efficiently move boxes from the truck to the kitchen.
To be clear, people have reservations about coming to the ranch. It is known in the homeless and drug use community. But Jeff says the reservations clients have for joining come down to personal choice and motivation.
“I think it’s about freedom. Christian (a former client) was so afraid to go to the ranch because he wouldn’t be able to drink,” Jeff said. “There was a guy, Bob, in the south side. But he would not come to the ranch because he was scared to stop drinking. He was trying to get himself to the point where he could go.”
Bob was murdered about a year ago just outside the San Mateo Campground. Jeff said it was over a small sack of meth.
Although he said there isn’t a negative connotation of the ranch among the San Clemente homeless population, Jeff said they know it’s going to be a challenge, and they come when they are ready.
“I never hear anybody say that it’s a bad place, but it’s going to be hard,” Jeff said. “If they say it’s a bad place, that’s probably because they were asked to leave, probably because they were not cooperating or using drugs or something. (A bad) attitude will get you kicked out of there faster than anything else.”
No one is forced to stay at the ranch. It’s a voluntary commitment.
Keeping track of people sent to the ranch by the court system is also something that’s near impossible with the resources available to the overseers.
“We are not social workers,” Spitz said. “We do social work for them, but our goal is not to make sure that they’ve got their court stuff together at the expense of not dealing with their spiritual life. Because if they deal with their spiritual life, they’ll go deal with all the other stuff.”
Spitz said about 75 percent of the homeless men who have come from San Clemente may have not been born there, but could be “teachers, kids, contractors” who eventually set up camp or living provisions for themselves within the city.
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Within at least 25 miles of San Clemente, there are not many recovery options or public housing opportunities for low- or no-income drug users to access—the homeless facility in Santa Ana is always at capacity, as is the nearest shelter, Friendship Shelter, in Laguna Beach.
That lack of regional support amplifies the importance of the choices made regarding living conditions on the ranch. The conditions at the ranch are meager, and there seems to be no regulatory agency that will claim them, unless there’s a complaint.
A large, aluminum-walled storage unit houses various car parts, miscellaneous equipment and whatever else that’s been donated over the years. A food storage facility, which amounts to little more than an over-sized, open-air lean-to, has a musty odor. Loafs of bread were crudely crammed into an old Pepsi vending refrigerator.
“When you’re coming off the streets, any place is better,” Spitz said, “but we keep it organized.”
That’s important because the ranch is essentially unregulated and unmonitored.
Riverside County Public Health oversees treatment facilities within the county, but only if they’re licensed under the department. The ranch is not contracted by Riverside County, and therefore the county cannot implement compliance standards for it.
The Fair Housing Act and Americans with Disabilities Act prevent and protect against discrimination, but the laws do not exempt facilities from the state’s requirements to obtain a license for alcohol and drug treatment. The California Department of Health Care Services (DHCS) would normally regulate licensing for such facilities, but because people on the ranch recover through prayer groups hosted at the facility, they are not required to obtain a license from DHCS.
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In Laguna Beach, the city helps fund Friendship Shelter, which operates 83 units of housing and two shelter programs including 45 emergency shelter beds.
“We’re always full in both shelter programs and cap our residential program in Laguna Beach,” Executive Director Dawn Price said, adding the waiting list cap is 10 men and 10 women at a time. “At the emergency shelter, we’re turning away between five and 15 people each night.”
Price said her organization thinks there should be more homeless shelters in the area, but they aren’t the final solution; permanent housing is the answer.
Price said transplant populations coming to the area for treatment hasn’t been the most prevalent issue.
Despite the lack of facilities, Price said there are more efforts to help people than she’s ever seen in nearly a decade in this field. The United Way, Jamboree Housing Corporation, 2-1-1 Orange County and University of California-Irvine are currently conducting a study of homeless populations in the county as well as the economic factors it creates.
Kathy’s House, based in San Clemente, works to help people find homeless shelters or drug assistance living, and frequently recommends people to the ranch if they are looking to get sober.
Ciara Valdez, an administrative assistant with Kathy’s House, said the options are limited for people, particularly single men, trying to get off the street and into a shelter.
Valdez said Kathy’s House does not have its own shelter and often works with Set Free to help those who seek assistance.
Jeff said a kind approach to people consumed by drug and alcohol addiction and living on the streets is likely the best method to solving the problem.
“Become their friend, and then they trust you,” Jeff said. “Everybody has been putting these people down, and they don’t trust anybody.”
Indulging panhandling will not help, Spitz said.
“If there’s one thing you can’t do, you can’t give them any money,” Spitz said. “That’s usually what enables them. Definitely give them a reference or Jeff’s number or my number or a church’s number. Someone in the church will call us or go talk to them.”
* * *
Just like leaving a dark room to the bright outdoors, eyes have to adjust back to the luster of affluent areas in San Clemente after visiting the ranch.
But as soon as Spitz drives into town, two people sit on a gas station stoop either panhandling or planning their next move to survive or at least get off the streets.
“Those guys you saw (at the ranch),” Spitz said, gesturing to the men who were sitting on the curb. “They were just like him. (The ranch) perpetuates itself. The people that were there who really grab ahold of god, they learn the whole concept.”
As Jeff drives Spitz and our crew back to San Clemente, they notice one of the men on the stoop as someone whom they think they recognize, someone who was on the fence about coming to the ranch.
Homelessness in the U.S. has become so ubiquitous that a homeless person can be disregarded like a dumpster or blight. But Jeff and Spitz notice him above all else and decide to do something remarkable—they try to remember his name.
Matt Cortina contributed to this report.
Some people’s names in this story have been changed to protect their identities.