Officer Bonnie Breeze of the Tustin Police Department recently checked on a family of seven who had been living out of their vehicle parked in various locations around Tustin.
With help translating to Spanish from Monica Contreras, a case manager from the homeless assistance non-profit City Net, Breeze asked parents Alberto Rodriguez and Sheila Romero about their work history and identification paperwork from the Mexican government. Meanwhile, another City Net case manager, Reeny Burgula, complimented their 8-year-old daughter on her sweater emblazoned with “love” before she left for school.
Before meeting Breeze, Rodriguez and Romero lived in their car with their five children and lived off their income from recycling cans.
Breeze volunteered to be Tustin Police Department’s homeless liaison officer partly because she had a family member who was homeless, adding that she lives for the moments when someone agrees to accept resources to get off the streets.
“Sometimes it’s easier for someone like me to deal with them than with my own family because of the emotional issues,” she said.
In February, Breeze received the 2018 Community Service Award from the Tustin Police Officers Association for her work with the homeless.
On the third Thursday of every month, the Tustin Police Department conducts a homeless outreach where multiple officers visit parks, shopping centers, and other public spaces where the homeless hang out. Each officer is partnered with social workers from agencies like City Net and the OC Health Care Agency.
Burgula said she enjoys partnering with Breeze because the women complement each other; she’s the serious one while the 17-year veteran of the police force tries to bring a sense of humor to the job.
“I think we work well because deep down we have good hearts,” Burgula said.
Although large segments of the homeless population are either experiencing drug addiction or mental illness, Breeze said many were living paycheck to paycheck and lost their homes after being in a traffic collision or getting sick.
On a recent homeless outreach day, Breeze knocked on the window of a Chevy HHR in the parking lot of a vacant store. The occupant told Breeze he started sleeping in his car after his girlfriend told him to leave their Tustin apartment when he was arrested for driving under the influence. He had a full-time job and didn’t want his coworkers to know he was homeless.
“He’s living two different lives,” Breeze said. “If I saw him at work I’d probably never know he was sleeping in his car.”
Breeze often encounters homeless people who aren’t happy to see her and walk away when they recognize her unmarked Toyota truck. But even her most unfriendly encounter starts with “Hi, how are you today?”
Homeless individuals who can prove they have a connection to Tustin, either with a photo identification card with a Tustin address or high school records, are eligible to seek shelter at the Tustin Temporary Emergency Shelter.
On March 18, the City of Tustin opened its 50-bed temporary shelter as part of a settlement agreement in a federal court case brought against Orange County cities that claimed, among other allegations, that anti-camping laws violate homeless individuals’ rights when they have nowhere else to sleep.
As Tustin’s homeless liaison officer, Breeze has an office in the temporary shelter’s administration building to monitor guests’ progress, settle disputes between guests, and generally keep the place safe. When she’s not around, private security guards monitor an extensive camera system and man a metal detector to prevent weapons from being brought into the shelter.
Breeze said Tustin made the strategic decision to allow guests to bring their dogs and cats into the shelter because many would rather sleep on the street than give up their pets. At night time, the animals are confined to stand-alone kennels kept next to their owners’ beds.
To commemorate the shelter’s opening, Breeze’s colleagues presented her with a green and white road sign that reads “Breezeville Population 50,” and she proudly displays the sign on the wall of her office.
Lois Habersham, 70, came to the Tustin Temporary Emergency Shelter after her long-time roommate, who was also her sister-in-law, died. She briefly moved back to the neighborhood of Philadelphia where she grew up but returned to Orange County because she considers Tustin her home.
At one point, Habersham was a satellite communications contractor for the U.S. Air Force in El Segundo but since she retired she can’t afford to live on her own. She credits Breeze for rescuing her from having to sleep on the streets or a crowded shelter.
“She’s a great listener, she’s full of information and very compassionate,” Habersham said. “That badge was always a scary thing but her badge represents compassion.”