From his first day on the force 19 years ago, Officer Randy Richards of the Fullerton Police Department has had a singular mission: to help those in need.
As he has grown older, the 58-year-old has become increasingly aware of Fullerton’s homeless problem and the often tragic plight of the estimated 300 to 400 men, women and children who live on the streets, in cars, tents, shelters and temporarily on friends’ couches.
“There’s a need out there, and it’s not going to fix itself,” Richards said.
That’s why he and 60 other volunteers spent the sunny afternoon of Saturday, Dec. 5 indoors at the Irvine offices of the nonprofit homeless advocacy group HomeAid Orange County.
The volunteers, who included families with children, community outreach workers and police officers, spent four hours unpacking donation boxes, inventorying items and then separating them into huge piles for easy assembly into homeless care packages.
“I think every time we try to do something in kindness and generosity we’re making a difference,” said volunteer Cassie Wierenga, a 29-year-old Laguna Beach resident and executive recruiter. “And it spreads, the ripple effect.”
By day’s end, the assembled had put together about 1,000 “HomeAid CareKits” that contained soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, bottled water, energy bars, razors and lip balm. Most important, each kit had a card with a phone number the homeless can call anytime for housing, mental health, food, substance abuse and employment referrals.
Among other agencies, HomeAid Orange County plans to distribute the kits to the homeless liaison divisions of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, the Anaheim Police Department, and the Fullerton PD, which will receive 400 care packages.
Gina Scott, HomeAid Orange County’s director of community engagement, encouraged the volunteers to put aside some of the homeless kits.
“Please keep one of these,” she said. “Put it in your car and give it to somebody in need. It’s a simple act of human kindness.”
And an increasingly urgent one.
Orange County’s homeless population has grown by about 5 percent in the past couple years, according to the nonprofit 2-1-1 Orange County. Rising rents have pushed many into the streets, experts said.
FPD Cpl. Dan Heying has a bird’s-eye view of the problem.
As one of the department’s four homeless liaison officers, he works to establish relationships with the local population. Heying and his colleagues aim to coax those without homes to voluntarily comply with panhandling and other laws. He also tries to connect those open to it to mental health and other social services that will help pull them out of their downward spirals.
At HomeAid’s Irvine office, the Heying family – Dan Heying, his wife, Summer, and their 16-year-old sons, Andrew and Christopher – all said they felt happy to help out the less fortunate.
For Cpl. Heying, though, it was personal. His job makes it so. So does the fact that his wife’s brother is schizophrenic, like some of those he encounters on the streets of Fullerton. Thankfully, he and his wife have found her brother a good living arrangement in Oklahoma.
Not everyone is so fortunate.
“They say that everybody is about two paychecks away from being homeless. It could happen to anybody,” Heying said. “That kind of hits home.”
In preparation for the Dec. 5 event, HomeAid Orange County christened November “Homeless Awareness Month.” Several area companies, large and small, held drives to gather items to go in the homeless kits, said Scott Larson, executive director of HomeAid Orange County.
Glenn Lukos, an environmental engineering firm, contributed money, toothpaste and razors. Kaiser donated 5,000 pairs of socks. The accounting firm, BDO, provided flashlights.
“When the people leave here today, they’ll know they played a small part in helping to end homelessness,” Larson said.
Eleven-year-old Bronson Baylies agreed. The sixth-grader at Thurston Middle School in Laguna Beach came to the event with his younger brother, Maverick, and his mother.
“When I’m doing this, I really like it because it’s giving to people who don’t have anything,” Bronson said. “It’s like Christmas; we’re the elves and they’re the people getting presents and enjoying them.”