Laraine Yasika says a prayer prior to eating lunch with a group of local residents who would share lunch with the homeless at Lions Park.

Laraine Yasika says a prayer prior to eating lunch with a group of local residents who would share lunch with the homeless at Lions Park. (Scott Smeltzer)

COSTA MESA — He cycled around town with an empty child trailer hitched to the back of his bike.

It was around dusk near Lions Park on a recent Tuesday. Other than messy salt-and-pepper hair and ruddy skin from six years of living on the streets, there were few signs that Joseph Deutsch was homeless.

His second-hand shirt and pants were largely well-kept. His solid frame didn't look like it had missed a meal. He spoke confidently, clearly and evenly, not betraying the bipolar disorder he says he suffers from.

The former Santa Barbara resident carried a found guitar in a worn black case, but admitted to not being much of a musician.

"I praise God with it," said Deutsch, 45, adding that he attends morning Bible studies at Lighthouse Church, a house of worship that he calls a "godsend," on Anaheim Avenue near 18th Street.

But one man's godsend — be it a church, soup kitchen or public park — is another's cross. And few places like Costa Mesa's Westside better illustrate the conflict between the homeless who say they come here for help and some long-term residents and shopkeepers who complain that the high volume of street people chase away business and make them feel unsafe.

The job now set before the Homeless Task Force, established in January, is to find solutions for both people like Deutsch, who need help, and concerned residents and business owners who want improved quality of life. Members have a six- to nine-month window to make suggestions to the City Council.

"The concerns of the residents and businesses surrounding the park were, once again, enough for the City Council to take action," said task force Chairman Steve Smith, a freelance Daily Pilot real estate columnist. "When discussing homeless crime, there is the perception and the reality. The perception is that the homeless in Lions Park are predators willing to attack any civilian who strays on their turf.

"The reality is that almost all homeless crime is either solo action, such as drinking in public, or against other homeless people. Police data supports this. That doesn't make it acceptable; it just helps put the safety question in perspective."

Deutsch's story is just one of many. So many people are wandering around Lions Park on 18th Street that the park has been called "Ground Zero" in the city's struggle to address homelessness.

Take Denise Krystynak, who was observed that same night laying on a mattress in an alley beside the Bank of America on 19th Street. She and her boyfriend were listening to the radio and openly drinking alcohol. The two had filled a shopping cart with bedding and decorated a nearby tree with stuffed animals, including a gorilla called Bubba.

Krystynak is well-known among police officers for being unpredictable. During confrontations, police have pepper-sprayed and Tasered Krystynak, and officers have arrested her numerous times.

But not everyone fits the mold. Mark S. Whiting, 51, said he has a degree in chemistry from Cal State Fullerton, but was sent to prison for manufacturing methamphetamine.

He used to live in La Mirada but now calls Lions Park home.

"I'll do anything," Whiting said. "I'll take any job."


'A perfect storm'

There is a chicken-and-egg riddle in town involving what came first: the homeless people or the secular and faith-based social service providers that help them.

Some believe that the plentiful services draw in people living on the streets. Others remind that the poor have always been with us and that the services sprouted up around them.

Share Our Selves has a free medical clinic, and the Lighthouse Church has showers and free breakfast. Mercy House provides emergency housing and the Labor Ready work program connects the homeless with employers or sober-living homes.