Putting a Face on the Homeless

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Juan Jose Guerrero Torres has been coming to Malibu for work since 1989.

Some of the homeless in Malibu are highly visible — they can be seen pushing a grocery cart full of belongings down the shoulder of PCH or picking through trash cans at Zuma Beach, looking for recyclables to be traded for cash. Other members of the homeless community are much less conspicuous. 

According to various agencies and individuals, the homeless are usually divided into two groups: those who never chose to be out on the street and want permanent housing and people who chose the homeless lifestyle. The latter group includes a disproportionate number of individuals with mental health issues and substance abuse problems. 

What’s striking about the homeless and formerly homeless in Malibu is their diversity — they are both male and female and belong to a variety of races, age groups and nationalities. 

This week, two profiles — one of a homeless individual and one of a formerly homeless individual  — are featured, chosen at random based on availability and willingness to be interviewed. The first is an example of how someone can teeter on the brink of homelessness after suffering serious illness/injuries with no medical insurance. The second is an example of the working poor — an unskilled laborer earning just enough money to buy food and bus fare, but not pay for an apartment. 

Renee McMillan

Renee McMillan was born in Virginia — she won’t say how many years ago. Her mother died when she was a baby, and she and her four siblings (who have all since passed away) were raised by a grandmother. After graduating from high school, she attended Virginia Commonwealth University for two years, studyingnursing and then computer science before dropping out. 

Her passion for “missionary work” for various churches took her to many different states, including Ohio, Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee and North Carolina, where she supported herself by waiting tables or bartending in between church work. 

McMillan eventually came to L.A. because she had family in the Glendale and Burbank areas. She found employment with the catering department at Universal Studios, “Until I got injured,” she said. “I fell on concrete and my right side all the way down got injured. I had no health insurance, so I suffered badly.”

The accident happened about 15 years ago, and McMillan’s doctor in Encino, who was helping her recover, brought her to The Artifac Tree in Malibu for the first time.

Once recovered, McMillan found work as a civilian “role player” at the Marine Corps base at 29 Palms, where live training exercises are conducted at “Combat Town,” a two-acre, fabricated Middle Eastern village, complete with a mosque, native role-players and an IED Alley.

Seven years ago, she had a stroke. “It was difficult to walk and move my body, and I was really fighting to keep myself up,” McMillan said. “My body was out of control after the stroke, but I got pointers on exercises to do to get back into working and stay moving … but my bank accounts were swallowed up and I had nothing.”  

She began doing volunteer work for churches in exchange for cash donations and would have become homeless except for a couple that offered to temporarily take her into their home in exchange for helping with housework. 

Some friends helped McMillan get into “transitional housing” in downtown L.A. for $600/month. And, although she’s glad to have a roof over her head, she has to share the living space with an assigned roommate and lives in fear of the neighborhood. 

“There are ex-cons and drug addicts, but I had to learn to live with them and get along,” McMillan said. “Sometimes my nerves are shot to smithereens. People are fighting and in-your-face. I’m very nervous and scared to death, and I really want my own place.”

McMillan began receiving disability checks not long ago and stays occupied with volunteer work. She initially volunteered for the California Hospital Medical Center’s auxiliary gift shop, but now volunteers at Artifac Tree two days a week, coming out to Malibu on the bus or via ACCESS services for the disabled. “They have helped me tremendously here,” she said.  

Juan Jose Guerrero Torres

Juan Jose Guerrero Torres, a native of Mexico, has been coming to Malibu since 1989. Cheerful and talkative, he said the first time he came to town, someone sent him to The Artifac Tree, where they gave him socks, a blanket, a pillow, sheets and a tarp. He still goes there if he needs clothing or some other essential. 

He’s currently been in town since January 28, sleeping in the bushes at night and usually coming to the Malibu Community Labor Exchange (MCLE) to get day jobs.

“I do all kinds of miscellaneous work, like construction helper, carrying materials, sanding and painting. My favorite is digging holes and doing dishes,” Torres said.

Torres is technically not homeless — he owns property in a small town just south of the border “down in Baja,” but he’s currently letting relatives stay there for free.

His mother used to live on the old homestead, but she’d become old and frail and his relatives were not looking after her to his satisfaction, so he recently went back for a couple of years to take care of her until she passed away. He used to send her $250 every month.

Torres has never married and he’s not close to his brother, cousins or nephews, so he doesn’t feel there’s anyone left for him back in Mexico.  

He’s friendly but somewhat guarded around the other workers at the MCLE, saying, “If you’re too nice, they just take advantage of you.” He confesses to being lonely sometimes. 

His routine usually includes sleeping in the Zuma Beach area on “Wednesday or Thursday,” where he’s able to take cold showers at the public restrooms and maybe catch a free dinner at the Malibu United Methodist Church. He gets around by bus and usually goes to a coin-operated laundry in Santa Monica to wash his clothes.

Torres said he never goes hungry because he’s able to make enough money working at day jobs to go to the store and buy food. 

Torres was “worried” when he got two tickets from the Sheriff’s Department for “camping” in a no-camping area a few months ago. “The police came back and asked what I was doing there,” he said. The tickets required him to make an appearance at the courthouse in Van Nuys — a three-hour bus ride from Malibu — and to pay a $100 fine. 

He wouldn’t mind having his own place to live at some point, realizing he’s not getting any younger. 

Look for additional profiles in upcoming editions of The Malibu Times.