Fix Homelessness How to rebuild human lives

Eight days in the Golden State. First in a Series.


I’m used to hopeless stories about the growth of homelessness, particularly in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Last December LA Mayor Karen Bass declared her city to be in a “state of emergency” that demanded “a sea change in how the city tackles homelessness.” Fine, but six months later, on June 29, a Los Angeles Times headline blared about the change Angelenos has seen: “Homelessness grows 10 percent in the city.”

Two weeks ago I headed to California to see for myself. I had already walked LA’s Skid Row, where 11,000 homeless people crowd into 2/5 of a square mile and create what locals call “a man-made Hell.” Didn’t need another look at that, and the hope of seeing a little slice of heaven had me first heading 36 miles southeast of Skid Row to 1 Hope Road in Tustin.

That’s where the Orange County Rescue Mission (OCRM) fifteen years ago opened its campus on the site of what had been a Marine Corps base. My plan was to live there for four days and then go to San Francisco to see if it’s as bad there as books like San Fransicko say it is. 

Since I’m used to dingy homeless shelters, I’ll state one observation up front: The main campus of OCRM—it’s called a campus, and its formerly homeless residents are “students”—displays vibrant colors, an airy dining hall, a chapel/auditorium with modern stained-glass windows, a bright playground and petting zoo for children, and much besides.  

In this series I’ll tell you what I heard from 40 OCRM students, and what I saw in San Francisco. I’ll start with the southern California context: Orange County is about as good as it gets for a person living on the streets. Average highs and lows are 70 and 46 in December, 87 and 67 in August. Close to three hundred days are sunny or mostly sunny.

The city of Tustin itself is a middle-class, ethnically diverse city of 80,000 that is 40 percent Hispanic and 24 percent Asian. Orange County is also drug-diverse, with cocaine, meth, fentanyl, food, and health care all easy to obtain. The Ninth Circuit Court, with its restrictions on keeping people from sleeping on public property, hamstrings police. So, when a person is addicted: Why change?

Here are the memories of two J’s (to protect privacy I’m using first names only in writing about OCRM students) whose returns to reality were a slow train coming. Jerry, 55, started doing drugs at age 14, regressing from marijuana to cocaine and hallucinogens. He initially found meth stimulating and enhancing: “Feel like you’re Superman for three or four days — personality sharper, brain smarter. I’m 5’6” but I felt like I was twenty feet tall.”

Jerry graduated from high school, drove trucks in the Marines for three years, and drank a lot. Then came more drugs and “depression, guilt, shame, wreckage.” He had four children who were soon living with just their mom. Jerry’s first 30-day rehab program came in 1993, and over the years he went through three others: “Sober for a while, but everyone else seemed to be having fun.”  

Unemployed during Covid, Jerry went to North Lake Tahoe where a son lived. “On the spur of a moment” he said he entered a home to steal, got whacked on the head with a baseball bat, and went to prison for first degree robbery and home invasion. Finally, exhausting alternatives, Jerry gained “a willingness to surrender” to God and a desire to learn more about Him. Now Jerry is planning to get information technology certification and to work in IT.

Jessica, 35, was a high school athlete in basketball and soccer. She tore her ACL and during nine months of inactivity became accustomed to the positive feelings pain meds gave her. Then came party drinking and meth smoking followed by snorting. Jessica graduated from high school, gained an associate degree, and became a banquet chef and sous-chef who picked up gigs from InstaWork that could get her $300 for 4-8 hours.

Jessica’s mom died when she was 22. She moved in with her grandparents and was hooked on gambling when she turned $9 into $600. She started going to underground casinos where she’d gamble until three or four a.m. and lose all her money. Jessica sid she drank a half-gallon of vodka each day and stole $7,000 from her grandparents.

When she went home, the locks were changed. Then came couch-surfing, staying in a guy’s car, sleeping outside a church, and withdrawals followed by relapses. Jessica knows a standard testimony should stress how miserable she was, but she said, “I get bored easily. I enjoyed being a party animal. I loved it.” But OCRM helped her to realize she didn’t want to keep drinking or drugging day after day. August 1 was her first anniversary of sobriety.

(to be continued)  

Marvin Olasky

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Marvin Olasky is a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture. He taught at The University of Texas at Austin from 1983 to 2008 and edited WORLD magazine from 1992 through 2021. He is the author of 28 books including Fighting for Liberty and Virtue and The Tragedy of American Compassion.