Featured Image: Charlie Wolfe looks out over North Beach from the lawn of the Ole Hanson Beach Club on Friday, Dec. 17. The 51-year-old, who’s battled with drug abuse and alcoholism for most of his life, and relies on public transportation to get mental health service appointments, is one of more than 100 homeless people struggling to survive on San Clemente’s streets. Photo: C. Jayden Smith
By C. Jayden Smith
In the midst of the holiday season, as families gather to spend time together and feast within their warm homes, those privileges can be taken for granted.
They are privileges that people who are experiencing homelessness badly desire.
Even in a place with such balmy temperatures in the winter months as Orange County, those subjected to trying to brave the elements simply want the luxury of food, warmth, and shelter.
Homelessness is an endless, yearlong problem that only exacerbates around this time of year, making it difficult for people out in the cold and the ones trying to provide all the support they can.
Nadia Fields has lived up north in Santa Rosa, with her husband, for the past seven years. She still tries to come down to San Clemente as often as possible to check in on her 35-year-old son, Seamus, who has been homeless for the past 15 years.
This time, Fields brought her 80-year-old mother, Seamus’ grandmother, in from England to visit as a Christmas surprise, but the feeling is still bittersweet.
The family lived in San Clemente during Seamus’ childhood, when he was a bright young man with a positive future. Fields described him as a kind-hearted, funny, giving, loving person, who still holds those traits somewhere inside him.
“He played ice hockey, he was a good student, he’s artistic, he could write, he could cook, he’d make amazing food,” she said, adding: “He was a very creative person.”
That all changed at 17, when a skateboarding accident resulted in a fractured skull and a traumatic brain injury. The incident furthered his pre-existing mental health struggles, leading to a lifetime of “falling through the cracks,” as various authorities implored Seamus to reach out and be active in his journey—something he cannot manage.
“He became angry (after the accident), and that’s part of the frontal lobe injury that happens when you hit the back of your head; everything goes to the front,” Fields said. “… He doesn’t even understand why he gets so angry. It will just go from zero to 60, and that was never him.”
According to his mother, Seamus now lacks the self-awareness, foresight, and mental fortitude to do much more than walk through the city’s streets.
“People just see a crazy drug addict,” Fields said, adding that “being his advocate as his mother is not enough, because then they say, ‘Why don’t you cut the cord? When are you going to let him hit rock bottom?’ ”
“There is no ‘rock bottom’ for someone like (him),” Fields continued. “Death is rock bottom.”
She detailed the experience they had with Orange County Mental Health Services, in which Seamus was discharged after getting treated for weeks because he showed improvement.
Neither of the two felt he was ready to move on.
“I see all sides of this—I’ve been doing this (for) 15 years with my son—and he’s been … in and out of jail, in and out of programs,” she said. “Nothing sticks, because the minute he does well, they discharge him, and he’s considered well, and then he’s back out on the street, and it just goes back to the beginning.”
Fields said that around this time of the year, what homeless people need most is the ability to stay warm, with pants, sweaters, and tarps to protect them from rain or other harsh weather.
“Waterproof jackets with hoods, waterproof shoes, a place to go (to get more clothing),” Fields said.
Fields said that she will never give up on her son, and will keep pushing for him to get help in the hope that one day, the floodgates will open and Seamus can start a true recovery.
She worries every day and night that she will have spoken to him for the last time on the previous night, constantly fearing the day she receives a phone call that notifies her of her son’s death.
“I just hope he doesn’t die,” she said. “I hope he gets the help he needs—and I mean that for all the kids (on the street).”
“I really want to say to just give them a chance. Even if you help one person, with one thing, on one day, that could change their life.”
DEALING WITH AUTHORITES
Both Fields and local advocate Maura Mikulec spoke of the restrictive treatment Seamus and other homeless persons receive, including citations for small crimes such as pushing a bicycle without a headlight or by getting arrested on warrants when they are unable to make a court hearing miles away from them.
Without structure that provides reminders for when to take prescribed medicine or where to store things so that they are not lost or stolen, the progress from any help administered to the homeless can erode quickly.
Mikulec added that the help must be something people feel comfortable with accepting on their own terms.
“If it’s, ‘Well, you can go to some place where you’ll share a room with somebody else in Garden Grove,’ and ‘Come with us, (but) we don’t know you, you don’t know us,’ they’re not going to accept that,” Mikulec explained.
In Fields’ eyes, the solution to what she calls a common sentiment of nearby residents that want to rid homelessness from their backyards, is by providing housing.
She referred to alternative housing options that are growing in popularity throughout the state, such as converting stables, motels, or a car storage facility into a place where each occupant has their own space, however small.
While residents may be apprehensive toward directing their taxes into those programs, they provide people with continued shelter, the opportunity to charge their phones or attend to their basic needs, and allow access to mental health services.
Mikulec further commented on the lack of consistency or follow-up with outreach staff.
Whether dealing with a county, city, or nonprofit organization, when those on the streets do not interact with someone for a week at a time or have to explain their situation repeatedly to a rotating cast of people, the process can become draining and hopeless.
Mikulec commented that even with San Clemente committing to hire a second community outreach worker, connecting with the 100 or more people on the streets in addition to handling all the behind-the-scenes work is too much for them to effectively manage.
“Even with outreach, even if you get mental health (personnel) to come, even if you’ve got people all over the street wanting to help, there has to be somewhere for the people to go,” Mikulec added. “They are not going to get well on the street.”
Karlie Hunter, the city’s community outreach worker, and the nonprofit City Net, the city’s previous homeless outreach contractor, did not respond to requests for comment as of press time.
Charlie Wolfe, 51, comes from a long history of San Clemente residents, dating back to his grandfather’s birth in the city during its early days.
“My great-grandpa and great-grandma came up (in a) horse and carriage from deep in Mexico to here, and my grandpa worked for the Navy,” he said at North Beach on Friday, Dec. 17.
Wolfe has stayed at the Friendship Emergency Shelter in Laguna Beach in recent weeks while he continues to work on setting himself up for future success. He applied to multiple jobs, including one position at a daycare for dogs.
“I’m pretty confident,” he said about finding work. “For one thing, I’m not lazy, and I like working; people can’t keep me sitting around for too long.”
Wolfe has bus passes to travel across the county to attend his various mental health service appointments and other required showings. The thought of missing or being late to a location because of travel times of upwards of two hours can still provide tremendous stress.
Wolfe has struggled with drug abuse and alcoholism for most of his life, and a host of other occurrences led to his homeless status.
While he admits to being in better shape than others in his position, he is clearly aware that he needs assistance to get back on track.
“A lot of people look at me and judge me, (saying), ‘You look fine, you look this, you look that on the outside,’ ” he said. “I mean, great, because I (expletive) take care of myself, but at the same time, I’m mentally (expletive) up.”
Through his day jobs, he has earned enough to be able to buy quality jackets and other essentials to protect himself.
“Here in San Clemente, they think they’re above everybody else,” Wolfe said.
The County of Orange this month opened its wintertime emergency shelter at the California National Guard Armory in Santa Ana, where overnight shelter will be provided to homeless individuals looking to get out of the cold weather.
To stay at the shelter, individuals must meet at one of two bus pick-up locations in Sana Ana by the late afternoon each day. Currently, the city offers bus passes to San Clemente’s homeless to get to shelters, but not direct transportation to the Armory’s pick-up locations.
On Tuesday night, Dec. 21, Mayor Pro Tem Chris Duncan, as a late-breaking issue, proposed that the city use some of its Senate Bill 2 grant funds to set up an immediate transportation program to offer homeless individuals with a shuttle to Santa Ana.
“We’ve got this shelter available if we want to make a meaningful difference—to particularly our homeless individuals at North Beach—this is a way to do it, by making sure there’s shelter and making sure they’re not just sleeping out, out and about, near the train station,” Duncan said.
The proposal, however, failed to get enough support from other councilmembers, some of whom raised concerns over logistics and funding, given the rushed nature of the program. The council instead agreed to have city staff come back to the Jan. 18 meeting with a full report on the proposal.
Mikulec has volunteered independently as an advocate and a social worker in South Orange County for 3½ years.
In addition to personally connecting with those on the streets, she spends a lot of time advocating for the homeless on a policy level within government.
She echoed the sentiment that others living with their condition voiced repeatedly, in that the people are frequently misunderstood.
“Community members will often see just one part of them, and sometimes it’s the ugly part of the person,” she said. “We all have ugly parts. Most of us are not only judged by our mistakes or failings, but (the homeless) are much deeper than that.”
Mikulec said that if residents took the time to show compassion and try to understand the circumstances the homeless face daily, their perspectives would shift dramatically.
While acknowledging that help does exist in some forms, she added that whatever is present is not enough.
San Clemente plans to hire a second full-time community outreach worker. San Juan Capistrano has staff from Mercy House who work on the streets throughout the week, interacting with homeless persons through various levels of programs.
Yet, there continues to be a need to be do more on the homeless’ behalf, according to Mikulec, beyond the way the existing programs and outreach is currently structured.
“It’s just not enough help to get them off the street,” she said.
Regarding the community’s role in solving the crisis, every action that displays kindness matters, whether by calling on government officials for help or by giving someone a jacket or a drink.
“When somebody sees them and shows care for them, it can make a real difference,” Mikulec said.
Those looking to learn more about the county’s cold weather shelter can contact 213.220.5636.
C. Jayden Smith graduated from Dana Hills High in 2018 before pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in digital and broadcast journalism from the University of North Texas. After graduating in December 2020, he reported for the Salina Journal in Salina, Kansas. Jayden loves college football and bothering his black lab named Shadow.