Christmas Eve along the Santa Ana riverbed: A time for sharing

Jennifer Lattanzi and her husband, Ray, crossed the rain-swollen Santa Ana River on Christmas Eve morning in search of a sleeping bag.

“Even though we live in our car, the cold air seeps in from everywhere,” the 43-year-old said.

Lattanzi is a substitute teacher, but the calls for gigs haven’t been steady. Her husband has also struggled to find a job.

Their home on wheels is parked near the growing vagrant camp of about 300 people along the riverbed. They pay for a storage space to keep their belongings safe, getting by on what little they make from part-time work and collecting recyclables.

When they heard volunteers would be giving away food, clothing, tents and more Saturday in the space behind the Orange County Fire Training Center on Orangewood Avenue, they came looking to make their holiday a little lighter.

“It feels really wonderful that people are helping us out,” Lattanzi said, smiling beneath her black beanie.

The holiday giveaway was sparked by Tony D’Urso, an entrepreneur from Anaheim who hosts the podcast Revenue Chat Radio.

D’Urso and his wife have been doing toy drives for needy children for several years. But as they watched the homeless encampment along the river continue to grow, they decided to shift their efforts to helping families living there this Christmas.

“It’s gotten out of hand,” D’Urso said. “We need to raise awareness.”

He shared his Christmas Eve plans on Facebook a month ago. Word quickly spread, with donations of nearly $1,000 in cash plus food and supplies rolling in.

Families arrived before 9 a.m. with trash bags full of clothes to hand out. The Filling Station in Orange donated food. The company CPR 3G in Mission Hills brought out volunteers to help. So did the organizations Thrivent Action Team and Passion, which had teams across the Southland on Saturday reaching out to the homeless.

Army veteran Hugo Mendez crossed the river to get a new tent. He had one, but mice that have infested the encampment ate through the bottom of it.

Mendez, 41, suffers from PTSD courtesy of his time in Haiti, Panama and Iraq. Now, he’s trying to help make sure a homeless woman who may be carrying his child gets into housing before the baby is born in a few weeks.

Helping to make that happen was Danny Somerville, who started For Him Ministries out of Placentia Presbyterian Church. He said he counted 322 people along the riverbed on Friday night. Somerville is a convicted felon who was once homeless himself. Now he spends time almost every day by the river, getting families supplies and trying to place them in transitional housing.

“These people need to know that somebody cares,” he said. “That’s what saved me.”

There are lots of nonprofits that offer help, he said. But they all have their own rules, often making it tough to connect people with the right programs.

Some will only take women and children. Some can’t work with the mentally ill or will only accept them if they have needed medication. Some won’t take people who have pets – a deal breaker for some of the residents who say their dogs have saved their lives.

That’s the case for 41-year-old Heather Smith. She bottle fed her silver Pitt bull Shera from the time the pooch was 16 days old. Now, as she battles stage 3 non-Hodgkin lymphoma, she said Shera and her husband, Michael Sage, keep her going.

After two days of steady rain and harsh winds on what he calls “misfit island,” Sage, 48, showed up at D’Urso’s giveaway in two pairs of soggy socks but no shoes. He walked away wearing sturdy work boots, just one size too big.

“It shows you that human kindness is genuine still,” he said.

Contact the writer: 714-796-7963 or bstaggs@ocregister.comTwitter: @JournoBrooke

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