By THERESA WALKER – OC Register – August 5, 2021
Chaos. Hardship. Stubbornness. Details of lives lived on the streets in O.C.’s Second District are revealing. Getting people to talk about it takes kindness.
The bottles of Gatorade and the homemade sandwiches handed out by Wound Walk OC volunteers as they dispense basic first aid to homeless people living outdoors are meant as acts of kindness, if not essential sustenance.
But these days the offerings also serve as ice-breakers. Wound Walk OC founder Michael Sean Wright and a small team of helpers have spent recent weeks trying to survey the people who sleep outdoors throughout Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley’s Second District.
One of the clear findings from the first 120 or so completed surveys confirms something Wright knew already, from his years of Wound Walk excursions with the homeless.
Many homeless people in the Second District need detox services for substance abuse, particularly opioid addiction. Some, in fact, tell Wright they would accept treatment that minute if they could. But it’s not so easy. The county sets aside fewer than 50 beds in detox centers for people who can’t afford insurance. So the best Wright can do is promise to come back and see if he can help them get on a list.
But the link between homelessness and drugs is just one of many issues expected to emerge from the survey.
Foley, who was elected earlier this year, used her discretionary funds to commission the homeless survey and a financial audit of the organizations that provide shelter and services in her district, a 112-square-mile area that includes Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa, Newport Beach, and Stanton — all cities with homeless hot spots. Her goal is to identify successes and failures in addressing the most pressing needs of homeless people and then use that information to provide more effective responses in the future.
Wound Walk OC is doing its part of the project under a $20,000 contract with Foley’s office.
In addition to asking for a name or nickname, age, race/ethnicity and where someone last had a permanent address, the 28-question survey asks about medical issues, substance abuse, and mental health — the kind of personal details that many people, homeless or otherwise, might balk at sharing. In all, Wright plans to survey 400 people.
It’s not an entirely new quest for Wright. Over the past five years, the one-time emergency medical technician has been cleaning and dressing the surface wounds of homeless people, and steering those people toward a doctor’s care. Wright started this work on his own, though more recently he’s been leader of the nonprofit Wound Walk OC.
He hopes that by getting people to talk a little about their broken lives, he can provide Foley with information that can lead to providing homeless people with the right kind of help — the help they say they need.
He calls it a “triage” survey.
“What I don’t want is to do just a survey,” Wright said. “I want to take action.”
But any action first involves gaining people’s trust.
“We go slow,” Wright said. “We take our time.
“It ain’t easy.”
On the last Friday night in July, Wright’s four-member group was about two weeks into the survey, talking with people along a stretch of Stanton near Beach and Garden Grove boulevards. Some of their encounters illustrated the challenges of engaging men and women who have spent months — or even decades — enmeshed in homelessness.
Take the man with the grey beard that bushed out from under his COVID-19 face mask, matching in length and free flowing scruffiness the hair beneath his rumpled, wide-brimmed hat. His basketball-style sweats were unzipped from his bandaged ankles up to mid-thigh. He stood on crutches in an otherwise empty parking stall reserved for “Denny’s On Demand” pickup and deliveries.
But as unkempt as the man who identified himself only as “Sam” appeared, his wit was sharp.
Asked about his last permanent address, Sam answered, “A dress? Oh, I don’t wear dresses.”
Where did he grow up: “I didn’t grow up.”
Where was he born: “I was too young to know.”
Wright, listening in, observed out of earshot, “This one’s going to take a while.”
But Sam did talk about the arthritis in his knees — “bone on bone,” a doctor told him — and about how he tries his “darnedest” to stay away from people who use methamphetamine. “You can’t trust them,” he said.
But, when asked, he also said he hadn’t stayed in a shelter, declaring: “I will never.”
Wright’s observation that Orange County has a particular need for opioid detox and medication-assisted treatment is backed up by data. A 2019 health report showed that Orange County had the highest rate of overdose deaths of all counties in California, despite having so many privately operated rehab centers and sober living homes that it’s known as the heart of Rehab Riviera.
And, since that report, the drug crisis has worsened. An update issued July 28 by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department showed that the powerful synthetic opiate fentanyl is killing people from all walks of life at a skyrocketing rate, taking more than twice as many lives in 2020 — 432 — than were killed by fentanyl in 2019. Also in 2020, fentanyl helped fuel a record number of deaths among Orange County’s street population.
Wright is assisted in his efforts to get the addicted into detox by a former addict, Ian Ashby, who is now a clinical case manager with the Share Our Selves (SOS) Community Health Center in Costa Mesa.
Ashby is helping to guide the survey in Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa and Newport Beach. And he accompanies Wright during his Wound Walk outreach in other areas as well, his experience with addiction and homelessness being another asset in making inroads.
Friday night, Ashby exchanged cellphone numbers with a homeless man sitting on a bus bench on Beach Boulevard, before ending their conversation.
“I can call you, right?” the homeless man asked.
“You can call me anytime,” Ashby said.
The man, in better physical condition than the guy on crutches, answered every question in the survey. He is 51 and has been homeless for 21 years. He came to Orange County from New Jersey 35 years ago. He said he owned a loan company before a hip injury set his life off track.
He told Ashby that he’s currently hooked on meth and fentanyl, but wanted to get clean. Ashby arranged to meet the man again in a few days and take him to a detox center in Stanton, where a bed was expected to become available.
In another encounter, Wright and Ashby spoke with a man who goes by the name “Turtle.” Ashby had been working with Turtle previously, visiting him a couple of times a week to convince him to enter detox. And after some convincing, Turtle agreed.
Turtle’s stint in rehab lasted just four days. Turtle didn’t like being locked down.
But Wright and Ashby haven’t given up.
As Wright applied ointment to Turtle’s sunburned face, neck and ears, they made an appointment for Turtle to see a doctor at a Share Our Selves community clinic to check out his bad heart. He’s been homeless for 10 years and visited multiple hospital emergency rooms.
Ashby gave him his business card. “Use this, man,” he said.
Then, in parting, “I love you, man.”
Eager for help
For the woman who waited at the Beach Boulevard bus stop on her way to work, the big issue is money.
She said she grew up in the area and has been living in a nearby motel off and on for about a year. Now 31, she said her housing situation has been unstable since she was 18. She said her husband is in jail but she didn’t say why.
The woman, who did not want to be identified, said she makes $15 an hour working 70 hours a week between jobs at a warehouse and as a security guard. That’s about $1,000 a week, but she said it’s not enough to pay for a motel room and bills, and save for an apartment. She and White exchanged cellphone numbers.
“I want help,” the woman said. “I want to stop moving so much.”
Besides providing Supervisor Foley with information on their needs, the survey is revealing something overlooked about homeless people.
Said White: “Some of them express how grateful they are for having someone ask their opinion, for somebody listening to them.”