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Helping homeless gets personal

City, police work together to assist different types of homeless people with a more individualized approach.

June 25, 2011|By Lauren Williams, lauren.williams@latimes.com

He stood at the gate to his United Airlines flight, ready to head home to Chicago after two years on the streets of Costa Mesa.

Officer Julian Trevino, a Costa Mesa cop, had helped Jose Zamora get an identification card and contact his sister so she could buy her brother a ticket home. Trevino stood by as the 50-year-old homeless man prepared to board a last-minute, $485 flight out of John Wayne Airport on a recent Friday. Zamora was leaving Costa Mesa to rejoin his family and see his granddaughter for the first time.

His story is one example of the new, more customized approach that Costa Mesa police and the city attorney have taken to deal with the city's homeless population.

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About six months ago, the city attorney began working closely with police officers to assess the different types of homeless people and repeat misdemeanor offenders in order to create a more individualized approach, said Elena Gerli of the city attorney's office.

If a homeless person commits crimes that have no direct victim but are generally considered offensive or damaging to society, such as camping in the park or drinking in public, the city refers them to Orange County's homeless court, Gerli said.

Police have also been working with the Department of Veterans Affairs, whose representatives started visiting Lions Park weekly after police contacted them about three months ago to identify homeless people who qualify for V.A. services, according to Trevino.

At least six people from the Lions Park area have been taken into V.A. assistance programs, said Kenny Preecs, an outreach director for Veterans First who works directly with homeless veterans in Costa Mesa.

Many officers on Costa Mesa's Westside carry business cards and phone numbers for shelters in their uniform breast pocket or service bag to hand out to the homeless population.

Those prone to violence, stealing or who are repeatedly a public nuisance receive "a little more of a punishment mode," Gerli said. "We start pushing a little bit."

The city attorney's office and Orange County district attorney's office work together on comprehensive prosecution, which determines how they handle individuals based on the types of offenses committed, Gerli said.

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How he got there

During his time on Costa Mesa streets, Zamora accumulated a record of 22 arrests and about 100 citations, Trevino said.

Most of the arrests and tickets were for alleged drinking in public, open-container violations and trespassing.

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