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Homeless in Laguna Niguel Part 2

Laguna Niguel Patch recently shed some light on a group of homeless people living at the El Lazo basketball courts. The day after the article posted, a local church hosted a barbecue in their honor.

While many of us take grilling a steak outdoors for granted, there are some who find the opportunity a rare treat.

For example, more than 30——gathered at in Laguna Niguel last week for a summer barbecue.

On hand to see the event through was local coordinator Mary Knab who has become known as an advocate for the homeless community in Laguna Niguel.

Knab along with many, many volunteers in the community are trying their best to help the homeless in Laguna Niguel as best they can.

Knab said the barbecue is part of a weekly Wednesday night dinner that is held at Faith Episcopal Church in conjunction with three other churches. When there is a fifth Wednesday in the month, everyone comes together to do something a little different. The other three churches are and the B'hai.

"We call ourselves 'Hands of Grace,' " Knab said.

Getting Involved

Knab said she became involved in the Laguna Niguel homeless community in late 2009.

"I started to notice homeless people in the parking lot and I have lived here for 16 years, but I had never noticed this before," she said.

Around September or October, Knab said the property manager for the Wal-mart parking lot posted some signs stating that repaving was scheduled. It also said the parking lot was to be emptied by a date shortly in the future.

"The property manager happened to be out posting these signs when she encountered one of the homeless men that was living there in his vehicle," Knab recalled. "At that time, he was there 24/7 because he had injured his foot. She got angry when he questioned how long the repaving project would take. It was at this point that I happened by and she told me that they all had to get out and stay out and if they came back she would have them towed."

The homeless people were able to stay at for a few days while Knab and some others tried to figure out a solution.

"It was at this point that I made a plea to the to allow them to stay in a city-owned lot as long as they left by 7 a.m. and did not return before 9 p.m.,"  she said.

However, Knab said the city council was not interested in making Laguna Niguel a homeless-friendly city.

"They are aware that we have homeless in our community. They did say that they would put together packets to be handed out to the homeless by law enforcement," she said. "Packets would be informational and a guide to resources."

A Safe Haven

After a couple of weeks, the repaving project was cancelled due to rain and the people started slowly moving back into the parking lot making sure they left by 7 a.m. and returned after dark. This is when they started using the El Lazo basketball courts as a "safe haven," Knab explained.

"The hours fit perfectly with the hours that they needed to be away from the parking lot, there were restroom facilities and they could exist there without bothering anyone," she said.

At any given time, Knab said there are about 10 to 15 men and about three to five women who make El Lazo their homes.

"I do encounter families with children occasionally and I am usually able to refer them to an agency for housing and help. Adults with no children have the least amount of resources so it is this group that we find ourselves helping," she said.

Who They Are

Knab said the average age of a homeless person within the El Lazo community is 55. Three of the men work around 30 hours per work through the Labor Ready a temporary agency that supplies manual labor, but it is still not enough to pay for housing.

"Most have a small amount of income from either disability or Social Security. It is less than $1,000 per month. Many have been there for more than three  years," she said.

For example, one of them is "B," a 62-year-old man, whose body is in fragile condition following an injury involving a drunk man in the early 2000s and later a truck accident in the jungle in Belize. He had purchased some land there with monies awarded from the state's Victims of Violent Crime fund. It turned out to be a scam and he found himself battered, broken and broke in Belize, Knab said.

"His dog, Zoe, was with him and he credits her with saving his life because she stayed with him while he was hanging upside down in the truck, in and out of consciousness for three days," she said. "Eventually, she went to get help. Now, he is back in the USA, homeless and completely without resources until I showed him how to apply for SSI."

He was approved in five months and now has a $920 monthly income. He is living in an older motorhome donated by Faith Episcopal Church. The church had work done to it so it could pass smog tests and then gave it to Andy in November.

"He might be able to rent a room somewhere, but he won't leave his 90-pound dog," Knab said.

Another man, "J," is a recent addition to the community. His wife of 30 years died in April following a long and expensive illness. He found himself homeless by May. He speaks with an Alabama drawl even though he has lived in Southern California for more than 30 years. He has Social Security income of about $950 per month. He is trying to work through his grief and figure out how to move on, Knab said.

"The community of Laguna Niguel homeless have been his support system."

Another man, Kris, is a 68-year-old on Social Security who was living in a conversion van up until recently. He is one one of the success stories, who came down to the barbecue to visit with his friends.

"One of the first things I noticed about Kris was his lack of hygiene," Knab said. "One day when I was at the basketball courts taking routine blood pressures, Kris stated that he felt funny. His blood pressure was sky high."

Knab took him to a local urgent care clinic and they evaluated him and put him on blood pressure medicine. A short time later, she discovered that he didn't shower because he was physically incapable of doing so and that he was incontinent. The doctor also prescribed some cream to be applied to his feet three times a day for a fungal infection.

"I found myself changing adult diapers, applying cream and bringing meals. All this in the tiny confines of his conversion van," she said. "I tried to get home health care for him but couldn't because he didn't have a fixed address."

Eventually, he agreed to a room rental in a private home where he is now living instead of his van. He has applied for Medi-Cal which is the first step toward getting him a paid caregiver, she explained.

In the meantime, Knab and the church have contracted with a caregiver who is working a few hours to help pay toward the purchase of Kris' van.

One homeless woman, "S," is a 62-year-old who became homeless after a drawn-out divorce and a long period of unemployment following a serious car accident. After attorney's fees she received a small cash award and was savvy enough to by a good vehicle and a small trailer to live in, Knab explained.

"She has been homeless now for three years and is the proverbial mother hen for the group, often cooking food for them in her trailer. She also has two small dogs," Knab said. 

The Economy Factor

Another factor that has played into there being more homeless in the city is the faltering economy.

Knab said, "We have definitely seen an increase (in the number of homeless) in the current economic climate. We are seeing at least one new person each week."

Besides hosting barbecues, periodically the church has extra funds that it will use to help with gas or emergent needs.

"We also supply shower vouchers for the Laguna Niguel The church purchases the vouchers for $2 a piece and we send a shower cap around at the collection once per month to pay for them," she said. "Right now, we are only able to afford two per person per week."

Woman Behind the Help

Some might ask why Knab is such an advocate for the homeless in Laguna Niguel and where she finds the time.

"My family thinks I am too involved," she said. "I have a background in nursing and have always been service minded. I guess the real answer is that this is where the Holy Spirit has put me. I have some serious health concerns and I find that I worry less about that when I am giving of my time and my talents."

If you would like to help, Knab said donations are always welcome. They can use items for their dry goods bags which consist of tuna/tuna meal, bottled water or juice, granola mix, and a postcard about the Wednesday dinners.

"Soon, the colder weather will be here and sleeping bags or blankets are needed. Cash donations for shower vouchers will always help," she said.

Kirby Smith September 07, 2011 at 06:59 PM
Unlike some parts of Los Angeles, homelessness in Orange County is less visible although certainly something calling for our attention. Thanks for including the personal stories of our neighbors in your story. It's easy to see that we could well be in their shoes if we encountered the same tragic circumstances. Thanks also to Mary and all the volunteers who are living out their faith. Fr. Kirby, Vicar, Faith Episcopal Church
Andrew Martin September 07, 2011 at 08:26 PM
I used to walk to the regional park early in the mornings. I would notice many people sleeping in their cars just as the sun was coming up. These were not the typical hard core that we are used to in movies and perhaps from personal experience. There was one young woman, two younger men and one had a surfboard on top of his van. I passed one morning as he was opening the door and said good morning, we began to talk and I told him I could not help but notice he was living in the van. He explained he had recently been discharged from the service and using his words "they just say goodbye and that's all there is to it". He didn't want a hand out and wanted to work. I purchased a prepaid cell and a card for him and you would have thought he won the lottery. I didn't see him after that and hope he landed on his feet. Thank you Mrs. Knab for the work you are doing. I wish I had the resources to help more as unfortunately, I doubt this problem will go away anytime soon.
Debbie L. Sklar (Editor) September 08, 2011 at 12:06 AM
Hi Kirby: I was very touched by their stories. I'm glad they have someone like Mary and the churches. we may be doing a part 3 soon. Thanks or reading.
Debbie L. Sklar (Editor) September 08, 2011 at 12:07 AM
Andrew: That is incredibly kind what you did for him. I'd love to talk with you, please drop me a note at Debbie.Sklar@patch.com. Thanks for taking the time to read.
Tom Berney September 09, 2011 at 07:14 PM
I also work in town and notice that the down and out aren't all drug and alcohol addicted people, tough times have forced many to take to the streets, the rate of suicides also have increased for this class, the shame and constant harassment , life has become only about looking for food and shelter, throw in the dangers of that life and it's sure to burn anyone out, the thoughts of finding any peace of mind must be all consuming, were streched out in social services and there's no easy answers here.
Debbie L. Sklar (Editor) September 09, 2011 at 10:29 PM
Thanks for the input Tom!
Colleen Verruto September 21, 2011 at 05:19 PM
im so glad you wrote about this, we have a misconception about the homeless men and women, and what an incredible woman Mary is, i would love to offer my help i will be going through my blankets today and other items to help. we forget that hard times can happen to any one of us at any time,
Bobbie August 16, 2012 at 06:32 PM
Mary, I have been trying to reach you. Can you give me a call, would like to help if I can. Bobbie :) I have lost your phone number.

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