On Friday, Feb. 19, Ani Dermenjian pulled up to the gas station on Pacific Coast Highway near Las Flores Canyon Road and began filling up her tank around 10:30 a.m. Nearby, a homeless man began calling out to her, asking for change and saying he was starving, Dermenjian told The Malibu Times. So Dermenjian, a local Realtor, said she walked inside the station and bought him sandwiches, a soft drink and a bag of chips.
Outside, she put the bagged items on the ground near the man and told him she had bought him lunch. The man opened the bag and looked inside, according to Dermenjian, and then, she recalled, he became irate.
“What the f*** is this?!” he said. The man began cursing at Dermenjian, shouting angrily that he didn’t need the food. Then, he hurled the bag of chips onto Dermenjian’s car.
That’s when Madison Hildebrand, who was filling up his own tank nearby, got involved.
“Hey, don’t talk to her like that!” Hilebrand recalled saying.
Hildebrand himself is also a Malibu Realtor, but before that, he had been a state champion in both boxing and wrestling.
“I don’t need this, what the heck is this?” the homeless man continued cursing, the two Realtors said. That’s when the man—whom both Dermenjian and Hildebrand described as an African American man, seemingly on drugs with glazed eyes, wearing baggy clothes—started trying to enter Dermenjian’s car, shouting that he needed a ride.
“I said, ‘Do not get in her car, back away,’” Hildebrand described to The Malibu Times. “I was screaming, trying to get other people’s attention.”
Dermenjian and Hildebrand are acquaintances, but did not recognize each other at that point because of their masks.
The man then allegedly threw the bottle of soda at Dermenjian, hitting her in the arm, “nailing her really hard” according to Hildebrand. At this point, a shaking Dermenjian drove out of the area, pausing to tell another older, gray-haired homeless man nearby that he should go get the food the other man had thrown away.
Hildebrand stayed and continued arguing with the first man, who eventually went inside the service station, at which point Hildebrand also drove away. On his way out of the gas station, Hildebrand said he noticed the other gray-haired man retrieving the food the first had tossed.
“That was the only good thing that came out of [the encounter],” Hildebrand told The Malibu Times.
Dermenjian reported the encounter to the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station half an hour later. Lieutenant Anna Carrillo of the station confirmed to The Malibu Times that Dermenjian made such a call.
The station sent out deputies to search the area but did not find a man matching the description Dermenjian had given, according to Carrillo. However, Dermenjian said, she saw that the man was at the stop when she drove by that evening.
Dermenjian said one of the deputies she spoke to told her she had done the right thing by giving food instead of money to the man. The deputy told Dermenjian not to let one bad apple stop her from continuing to distribute food to the homeless in Malibu, something she told The Malibu Times she does often and has continued to do even since her gas station encounter.
“Had Madison not been there, I don’t know what I would have done,” Dermenjian said.
She cautioned residents to lock their car doors while filling up at gas stations. Hildebrand recommended that if residents are going to offer food to people, they do it in public and with another person present.
Dermenjian said she shared her story because she believes encounters like this one are “accelerating and increasing.”
Malibu Public Safety Manager Susan Dueñas said she understands.
Despite city staff’s efforts to find housing for some of the scores of local unhoused people in Malibu, alongside those of The People Concern and volunteer groups like CART, “it doesn’t feel like anything’s changed in town,” she admitted. In the last year, city staff’s efforts included exploring using the former courthouse as a temporary homeless shelter, researching multiple locations for safe parking programs, looking at other city’s successful approaches to homelessness and surveying the community on what to do.
Dueñas made clear that while it may seem as if there are more homeless people in town, the number of homeless people in Malibu has actually held steady for the past five years. She pointed out that those who commit crimes are not always homeless.
“It’s hard,” Dueñas said. “We get a lot of calls from the community, we see the broader picture and a lot of things happen with housed people, too.
“Regardless,” she continued, “it’s not OK for [what happened to Dermenjian] to happen.”
Dueñas said she hadn’t heard about Dermenjian’s experience, nor had she heard anything about that specific gas station being any sort of hotspot for incidents. But the alleged assault speaks to a larger issue within LA County.
“There’s not enough housing, people are being priced out, people with the least amount of resources are getting bumped off the edge and into homeless. The faucet is running faster than the drain,” Dueñas said.
Not only is homelessness a public safety issue for Malibu residents, Dueñas emphasized, it is also an issue for the homeless themselves.
So, how to fix this issue?
“We can’t continue to just sweep homeless people from one spot to another because we do that a lot and we spend a lot of money doing that,” Dueñas said.
“We just need to brainstorm as a community to come up with what we can do that would be more helpful to protecting the community’s feelings of public safety and also protect our homeless neighbors,” she added.
This year’s city budget allotted $340,000 for homeless services. Going forward, city council has a meeting scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 25, to discuss issues of homelessness in Malibu.