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Homeless in Orange County getting help during cold weather

January 16, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
The recent wave of bone-chilling weather, particularly at night, is especially dangerous for the homeless. The frigid conditions may have played a role in the deaths of multiple homeless people in Orange County.

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The city of Costa Mesa has teamed up with churches in the area to provide shelter and some food for those in need. The Lighthouse Church in Costa Mesa opened up its fellowship hall as a sleeping area and offered food from El Pollo Loco on Tuesday night.

"Out here, you'll die out here, man, if you keep on just being out here without any warmth," said Terry Keller, who is homeless. "In the 30s, you know, I got two gloves on, and my hands are still aching, and my whole body is aching because of that cold."

Two homeless people died possibly due to the cold. They were found Tuesday in two strip malls about a mile apart from each other in Costa Mesa. The deceased were identified as 52-year-old Rita Stenach and 54-year-old Robert Collins. According to police, there was no sign of any physical trauma on their bodies, so the cold may have played a part in their deaths.

According to people who knew her, Stenach rarely went to the soup kitchen or asked for help during her time on the living in the streets. She was found dead next to a trash bin.

Collins' body was found outside a strip mall. The Boston native lived in Costa Mesa for decades.

"I just had this sinking feeling that something was wrong," said a friend of Collins' who identified himself as John Jump. "I loved him dearly."

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A third homeless person was found dead in Laguna Beach near a park. He was identified as 33-year-old Benjamin Gaudreault. The coroner's autopsy reports on all three people were not released as of Wednesday afternoon.

Costa Mesa identified as many as 120 of what the city calls "chronic homeless" within its city limits. Officials want to do more than just rehabilitate them back into society.

"We're going to be looking for permanent housing solutions for the chronic homeless individuals. That's unusual for communities to look to build permanent housing for those individuals," said Costa Mesa CEO Tom Hatch.

In addition to teaming up with churches, the city has also beefed up its police patrols. Officers will be frequently patrolling areas that are known to have a high homeless population. They will be giving out blankets, food and encouraging them to get out of the cold and go to churches, like The Lighthouse Church. Officers will also be providing a paid night at a motel if necessary, which adds up to be about $90 per night.

"We had an immediate need for folks who we've determined are tied to our community, and we stepped up and did that," Hatch said. The city mentioned that in the latest such cases, the motel was able to comp the rooms for the city.

This comes as the city of Costa Mesa finished the fiscal year with a $2.5 million surplus. Orange County is also doing its part by opening up a homeless shelter in the city of Fullerton, which is estimated to cost about $3 million annually.


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