Legal aid in action: Serving the homeless at the Santa Ana Civic Center
It’s high noon on a hot Thursday afternoon. Among the rows of tents, blankets, and tarps, residents of the Santa Ana Civic Center find refuge from the sun’s boiling rays.
Some sit on sidewalk curbs and benches, watching government employees scurry between office buildings. Others have gathered on the lawn to tune-up their bikes – often the only means of transportation for this community.
Beads of sweat run down a man’s forehead as he carries heavy buckets of water through the Orange County Walk of Honor, across the street, into the Civic Center Pavilion where he washes his girlfriend’s clothes. His girlfriend, who sits nearby in red lawn chair, fans her face with a magazine. She’s eight months pregnant.
In recent years, the homeless population at the Civic Center has ballooned to more than 450 residents. While some are just passing through; others have been here for years. The situation has been deemed a “public health crisis” by the Santa Ana City Council.
“A lot of people need help,” says a long-term resident. “Most definitely, you got a lot of handicapped and people with mental issues and how did they get here? Before you’d only see a handful but now they probably double the regular members of this community now. What did they do? Wake up and decide to go to the Civic Center with the rest of them? No, somebody brought them here or they were dropped off here. That’s what’s going on.”
“Many of the folks here at the Civic Center are here because of circumstances beyond their control,” explains Legal Aid Society of Orange County (LASOC) Directing Attorney, William T. Tanner. “It’s complicated to say the least.”
Every Thursday morning, Tanner brings a group of LASOC staff, law students, and volunteers – including volunteers from the Orange County Bar Association (OCBA) – to the Civic Center to offer legal services to this community. The group pitches up a white tent in the Civic Center plaza, offering bottled water, homemade cookies, a phone charging station, an ear to listen, and assistance on a variety of legal issues. With clipboards and intake papers in hand, volunteers and staff answer common legal questions regarding expungement, family law, and camping & excessive property citations.
From helping residents with drivers’ license replacement to connecting them with government benefits, LASOC offers support services that are currently missing from homeless assistance programs.
“Our goal is to bring services to folks who wouldn’t be able to make it to our office,” explains Tanner. “It was Todd Friedland, the current President of the OCBA, who really opened my eyes to how bad the situation was down here. When Todd first brought me out to the Civic Center, I thought to myself, ‘wow, Legal Aid really needs to be out here.’”
Since the program’s inception in April, this grassroots, boots-to-the-ground approach has resulted in more than 170 individuals receiving legal aid services and many more receiving legal information. “Building trust with this community has been slow and steady,” says Tanner. “This community has been let down many times before, and has been promised things that have never come to fruition. But after coming out here every week, word has gotten round and they know where to find us. Sometimes, there’s a line outside our tent before we’ve even unpacked our table and chairs. That tells me our services are needed here.”
“This is about providing basic human decency to those who need it,” adds LASOC Director of Litigation, Lili Graham.
While working with this population, LASOC staff and volunteers have repeatedly heard stories of adversity, tragedy, and loss. “I was in prison; I did a year this time…after a month after I got out, I got a job, I started working,” says John, a Civic Center resident. “After two months after I got out, I lost my place to live, and the next morning I woke up and my father died. It was a string of bad luck and everything just came down on me. I ended up at [the] Civic Center.”
From suffering from an injury to losing their job, this community has had to overcome unfathomable obstacles. We would like to share some of these stories with you to showcase the harsh realities this community has had to, and still continues, to face.
Maria: “I have no place to go”
Dennis: “How’d I end up on the streets?”
Regina: “I have to do the right thing”
DW: “They call me ‘The Ghost’ because I appear and disappear”
Mama Briezy: “I look after the people here.”
Gilbert: “My wife got killed and I went to alcohol”
Sal: “I have to keep moving to avoid tickets”
Archie: “I’m going to fight my way out of this”
Since 1958, LASOC has provided legal aid services to our communities most vulnerable populations. Please consider supporting our organization through a donation so we may continue to help those who are most in need.
Photography by Louis Pescevic & Peggy Connery