A 64-year-old woman who had been living on the streets of El Cajon since last fall is starting a new life in Riverside County.
The plight of Carol DeLaurentis, featured in a Feb. 5 story in The San Diego Union-Tribune, captured the heart of a Temecula-based developer.
Ginger Hitzke, who has built a steady stream of low-income housing in Lemon Grove and other parts of the county with her Hitzke Development Corp., started making arrangements on Tuesday to get DeLaurentis sheltered.
By Wednesday afternoon, Hitzke had found both lodging and a job for DeLaurentis, who has been homeless since Oct. 9 when the landlord decided to take back the Lakeside property she and a roommate had been renting for five years.
“The last few days have been really nice,” DeLaurentis said by phone on Thursday. “Ginger is so down-to-earth with a genuine heart. Tuesday night, she put me up in a hotel in El Cajon. I took a shower and two hot baths. It was relaxing.
“Where I’m living is a really nice house. And Ginger is helping me with food, really healthy, good food. It is so good to see that there are some compassionate people out there willing to help a perfect stranger. It really touches me and makes me want to do the same for others, when and if I can.”
Hitzke said she saw a link to the Union-Tribune story on Facebook on Monday night and was struck by a photo of DeLaurentis taken by photographer Eduardo Contreras.
“Visually, her face is captivating,” Hitzke said. “It is a really beautiful face and it grabbed my attention. Once I read the story about how she had gotten a ticket for illegal lodging, then i got really pissed off and I wanted to pay for it.
“The fact that sleeping is a criminal activity is absurd. If it’s not exactly how the government told you can sleep, so what? So, sleeping inside of my house is legal but is sleeping in my front yard an illegal activity? Criminalizing that just pushes people who don’t have money to pay the ticket further down the hole.”
Hitzke said she met DeLaurentis for dinner on Tuesday night along with Crisis House Program Director Patricia Zamora at On The Border in El Cajon. Over Mexican food, they discussed a plan of action.
Crisis House is a social services agency in El Cajon that helps the homeless and others in need. DeLaurentis was the center’s unofficial bathroom cleaner and landscaper.
Zamora said she had been trying for nearly three months to find a place for DeLaurentis, but was stymied at every turn. Even though her income is around $300 a month from Social Security, DeLaurentis doesn’t fit the specific needs for affordable housing.
“The system makes it really difficult for people like Carol, and there are lots of people like her,” Zamora said. “She doesn’t have any apparent mental illness, isn’t addicted to drugs or an alcoholic, she’s not a veteran, she’s over 55. She kept falling into this gap and that gap got smaller and smaller. That’s the way the system works sometimes. She was eliminated for so many supportive services.”
Zamora said that while El Cajon has some comprehensive services for homeless, housing is not one of them.
“Most affordable housing developments are based on 30 percent, 40 percent, and 60 percent of area median income,” Zamora said. “This is a problem for our homeless here in El Cajon... considered below 30 percent of AMI, or very low income.”
The story on DeLaurentis prompted emails and phone calls to the newspaper from friends and teachers who remembered her from Hilltop High School. Facebook posts pushed out offers of clothing, food and gifts. There was even a note from a older man unabashedly looking for companionship and a roommate.
All were taken by DeLaurentis’s situation.
One of her classmates from Hilltop High School in Chula Vista, Laurie (Young) Geoffroy, said that there was a tremendous outpouring of support for their high school classmate on a Facebook page dedicated to their 1971 graduating class.
“This was so heartbreaking to those of us who went to school with her,” Geoffroy said. “She was vibrant, a tall, beautiful woman. And her eyes were as crystal blue then as they are in the article photo of her.”
Geoffroy, a human resources director who works with veterans, broke down and cried while discussing DeLaurentis.
“I haven't seen her since high school,” she said. “We were all so disheartened when we saw that story and we wanted to reach out and make an impact. We have had some very vibrant people in our class whose lives took a different path and they are no longer with us. We wouldn’t let her go down that road.”
DeLaurentis returned to Crisis House this week to say goodbye to the people who work there and farewell to the group of homeless people who became like family during the time she lived on the streets of El Cajon.
Zamora told DeLaurentis that people had been calling and stopping by the center to ask how they could help her, some dropping off gifts. DeLaurentis gave Zamora permission to open any letter that comes for her at Crisis House, which offers a mailing address for those without a home.
DeLaurentis also penned a letter that she hoped Zamora would share with people:
“Dear friends and supporters,
“Thank you so much for your donations. At this time since I am now housed, I am asking that you give your donation in my name to Crisis House. Crisis House will in turn help other homeless individuals with gift cards, bus cards and bus tokens.
“I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Crisis House. They have been crucial in me finding help in my time of need. So please let me pay it forward.”