COSTA MESA – Police and volunteers are offering the homeless motel rooms, blankets and rides to medical care after two people died on the streets of Costa Mesa on Tuesday.
They will be stepping up aid efforts during one of the coldest snaps in recent memory. City officials, who have spent nearly two years planning an ambitious solution to homelessness, cobbled together emergency measures quickly.
Both individuals were found in strip retail centers, about a half-mile from each other. Officials say there was no indication of suspicious circumstances, but could not otherwise say how they perished.
Police identified the man as Robert Collins, 54, and said he has cycled through their custody for minor offenses. The woman was 52-year-old Rita Stehnach, the Orange County coroner’s office said.
“The time has come to get serious about this,” said Becks Heyhoe, director of the Churches Consortium. “People are dying.”
The two had serious health problems, according to Heyhoe, who had met both of them. Costa Mesa Sgt. Zack Hoferitza said “the cold weather may be a factor,” while Orange County coroner’s watch commander Daniel Aikin said, “We do not suspect the weather was a factor, but we won’t know until an autopsy is performed.”
News of the deaths come on the same day Orange County supervisors approved a $3.2 million year-round homeless shelter in Fullerton. Meanwhile, city officials in Costa Mesa have been working on a housing project and other services for chronically homeless people. They hired a social worker and have helped reunite some people with families elsewhere.
Both of the deceased would have likely qualified for the city’s programs, which are aimed at those who have been in the city the longest.
Costa Mesa police will increase patrols in the areas frequented by homeless, city Assistant Chief Executive Rick Francis said Tuesday afternoon. They will bring people to medical facilities if they need care, he said, and the city will pay for temporary motel stays until the cold weather subsides.
Volunteers have also joined the efforts, bringing blankets and supplies.
Also, the city plans to coordinate with operators of emergency homeless shelters to provide transportation, Francis said. Mercy House, a local nonprofit, runs cold-weather shelters at the National Guard armories in Fullerton and Santa Ana, but buses only pick people up in Anaheim and Santa Ana.
A good Samaritan came to offer blankets to Collins and others Monday night when they realized he was unresponsive, his homeless friend David said. A group of homeless was sleeping in front of the Newport Beach National Charity League Thrift Shop at 542 W. 19th St. David, who gave only his first name, called police around 2:45 a.m. and then performed CPR, but to no avail.
“He was a good guy,” David said. “We’re going to miss him.”
Officers arrived just two minutes later, and pronounced Collins dead at the scene, Hoferitza said.
Then, around 1 p.m., another person called and said that a woman had been lying face-down all morning in the trash bin enclosure next to LA Boxing, at 103 E. 17th St. Stehnach was also pronounced dead at the scene.
Stehnach spent most of her time in the Vons shopping center at West 17th Street and Orange Avenue, a two-minute walk from where she was found. Besides a male companion, she remained isolated and didn’t frequent the soup kitchen or other homeless services providers, Heyhoe said. She suffered from severe alcoholism, said those who knew her.
Collins, on the other had, was well-known and generally masked his ailments. Called “Boston Robert” by friends, he was a native of Boston but had lived in Costa Mesa for 20 years, Heyhoe said. He had been homeless here for about 10 years, Collins told interviewers during a recent census conducted by Vanguard University.
“He was an old-school gentleman,” said Cynthia, 60, a homeless woman who slept in the same place and knew him for eight years. She was bundled in a parka and suede boots Tuesday evening, in the same spot where Collins died the night before.
He would always save her a piece of pizza after panhandling, she said, “no matter how smashed he was.” But Collins had been sober for at least a day, she said.
“He died sober,” she said. “He died with his dignity.”
Fighting cold symptoms for about four weeks, Collins had grown very quiet Monday night, not laughing like his regular self, Cynthia said. But it didn’t feel as cold that night as a few nights earlier, she added. Collins was wearing a flannel shirt, two jackets and was sleeping in a new mummy bag, in addition to another sleeping bag used as a blanket, she said.
The National Weather Service says the temperature was 37 degrees just before 6 a.m.
By MIKE REICHER/ THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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