This OC Couple Is Clawing Their Way Out Of Homelessness, And Texting Us Along The Way

Bobby Austin and Bejuique "Bay" Shambow have been homeless for three years. They're working to put their lives back together so that they can reunite with their young daughters. (Jill Replogle / LAist)

Bejuique "Bay" Shambow and Bobby Austin have been homeless for three years. But they have a powerful incentive to find something stable: two teenage daughters who have been living with Bay's parents in Georgia. They want the girls back.

"We're just ready to bring our babies home," Bay says, tears streaming down her face. "We want to make them proud. We want to really show them that even though we've made mistakes in our life, we want to make up for it."

Late last year, you might have found the longtime couple camped out along the Santa Ana riverbed in central Orange County. They'd ended up sleeping at the river after their car, which they'd been living out of, was totaled. They didn't even have a tent when they first landed at the river.

Bay was working at the OC Registrar of Voters to pay off an emergency loan from the county.

"I was sleeping like that, outside of people's tents, and then having to turn around and wake up 6, 7 o'clock in the morning and work at the Registrar of Voters," Bay says.

And she'd worked other places since they lost their home, washing off in a park with a gallon of cold water in the pre-dawn hours when she needed to shower.

Orange County officials cleared out the riverbed camp in February, and, in an effort to stave off a legal battle, offered help to more than 700 people living there. Bay and Bobby took it.

They were put into a motel for a few months. Then they were given a room at the Baymont Inn & Suites in Anaheim, in a county program for homeless people with severe and persistent mental illness. Bay has been in treatment for depression and other mental health issues since she was 14.

The couple's pathway out of homelessness is full of successes — but also potholes. Their story is a window into how hard it can be to get back on your feet once you lose permanent shelter.

"It looks really bad on paper for us," Bay explains at one point, her voice cracking with emotion. "We could look like probably monsters out there. But that's not who we are. And when you're trying to climb back into society, they don't look at who you are, they look at what they can see on paper."

Now they have until August 15 - less than a week - to find a permanent place to live. That's the date when the county will force them to check out of the hotel.

I've been hanging out and talking with Bay and Bobby since mid-June. Here's what it's been like for them to try to claw their way out of homelessness.

June 11. FOOD POISONING, HIGH FEVERS, JOB TRAINING

I get a text from a homeless advocate named David Duran, one of many volunteers who have spent countless hours and personal funds helping homeless people get a meal, get to doctor's appointments, try and sort out their housing options.

He texts me back Bay's number and adds this:

I send Bay a text the same day and ask if she'd be willing to chat, and if so, when.

"I have school and work until Thursday.

"Maybe Friday

"I also have food poisoning I'm doing this all with high fevers," she writes.

Bay and Bobby had been accepted to a culinary arts job training course. They learned about it through the substance abuse counselor Bobby met when he went through rehab last year for a meth addiction. It's an eight-week boot camp with jobs at the end, so they couldn't afford to miss a class, even when doubled over with stomach cramps and fever.

Their instructors later noted the incident as an example of the couple's determination.

Bay invited me to one of their classes the following week.

The 8-week culinary arts course sponsored by Open Gate International is designed to prepare people in difficult situations for careers in the food industry. Bay and Bobby started the program in June, 2018.

June 20. CAR TROUBLE, HOUSING SUBSIDY, GUACAMOLE

Bay and Bobby take their place among eight other students around a large prep table at The Hood Kitchen Space in Costa Mesa. They all wear white coats and chef hats.

Bay is 36, with dark, shoulder-length hair and a warm face. Bobby is 40, tall and thin, with short, spiky hair sprinkled with silver.

Judy Lamborn, who runs the day-to-day for Open Gate International, the organization that sponsors the culinary arts program, starts off the class with a "life skills" lecture on how to shake off guilt and shame.

"Who's in charge of your feelings?" Lamborn asks.

"We are," the class answers.

After the lesson, chef Brent Southcombe takes over and puts the students to work chopping vegetables.

I had driven Bay and Bobby to class from the Baymont hotel in Anaheim, a 40-minute drive that normally takes them four hours by bus. My car is the most practical place to interview them. Guests aren't allowed at the Baymont and the couple is busy most days with class, work and navigating the complex web of social services they need to help them climb out of homelessness.

The couple had saved enough in recent months to buy a 2003 BMW to get them to their catering and other event staffing jobs. But this day, the car sits in the hotel parking lot, collecting dust.

"We worked really hard, bought ourselves a car. Kinda rushed into it, so, bought ourselves a lemon," Bay says. "Set ourselves back, but we're here to pick ourselves up again. I just know now we have to work even harder."

Bay tells me she and Bobby have been accepted for a housing subsidy: $600 a month toward rent for the first year. Despite the car troubles, things are looking up for the couple.

In the teaching kitchen, the students mix up guacamole for an appetizer while I chat outside with Judy about the program. Open Gate International was started by Deidre Pujols, wife of Angels baseball star Albert Pujols, to help sex trafficking victims get back into the workforce.

Deidre and Judy soon expanded the program to include all kinds of people facing major life challenges, like Bay and Bobby. She later told me why the couple was accepted to the program — there are only 20 spots per course.

"Bay and Bobby ... they've been through hell, they haven't given up, they're still going through hell, even their future is somewhat uncertain but they refuse to give up on life," Judy said.

"They don't always get it right but they're determined and when you have someone determined like that, there's no limit on what you can do."

I head back to the kitchen classroom and someone hands me a huge plate of guacamole. I chow down and say goodbye, wondering if the bus will get Bay and Bobby home before or after midnight (their class ends at 9 p.m.) or whether a classmate in better straits might give them a ride.

June 27. WINDOWS SCREWED SHUT

Bay calls to tell me that all the windows in the Baymont are being screwed shut from the outside. Apparently one of the tenants in the county-sponsored mental health program had thrown something from a window and hit a vehicle in the used car lot next door.

Bay is indignant, and a bit panicked: she says she has bad dust allergies and has to have the window open to breathe. She tells me she's already called the fire department to report the presumed fire hazard.

A spokeswoman for the city of Anaheim confirmed that the fire department had received a call regarding the hotel's windows but said the department found no violation when they followed up.

June 28. FIRE DEPARTMENT TO THE RESCUE

I text Bay: "Did you get anything resolved?" She writes back that the fire department told her they'd contact Baymont management to keep them from screwing the windows shut.

July 3. TRAUMATIC CHILDHOODS, DRUGS, COUNSELING, EVICTIONS

I meet Bay and Bobby at the Baymont and we go to a nearby juice shop so I can interview them. It's a bad idea on my part: it's a busy place and we get into some intensely personal details about their background. But Bay and Bobby seem unfazed. They've probably told their story to dozens of counselors and social workers by now.

Bay says she started using drugs at age 13, self-medicating in the wake of sexual abuse and other childhood trauma. "You know, partying to forget life in general," she says.

Her dad sold drugs on the west coast. But he died before she was born and her mom later married another man. Bay's stepfather raised her and her siblings and Bay calls him "Dad."

Bobby's account of his childhood is ugly. His father sold drugs, but on the east coast. He was a member of the Hell's Angels with violent impulses.

Bobby tells me he once saw his dad shoot a man, and that his dad frequently beat him and his brothers while they were growing up. Bobby's mother died in a motorcycle accident when he was 3. Bobby ran away at age 14.

Bay and Bobby outside the Haskett Branch public library in Anaheim on July 23, 2018.

Despite their traumatic childhoods, when Bay and Bobby first got together, nearly 15 years ago, they did OK for a while. They had a daughter together, and Bay and Bobby refer to her and Bay's daughter from a previous relationship as "our daughters."

"It was a great first four or five years," Bobby says. "I mean, it was awesome."

Bay says they were high-functioning addicts. "We still had jobs. We had money. We had a home. But we had heavy, heavy habits."

Bay stopped doing drugs nine years ago, she says, after losing her two young daughters to foster care for a short time.

"I started going to school more, I started working more," Bay says. "I started to really pull myself out of my old, bad habits, even though the attitude still lingered."

Bay talks like someone who's been through a lot of counselling, which she has.

"It's just my pattern," she says of an abusive relationship she got into when she and Bobby broke up once.

Drugs, abuse — these are problems that millions of people deal with across the country. And yet most people don't become homeless. What finally landed Bay and Bobby on the streets was a series of evictions.

Bay was in government-subsidized housing in Hemet when she let some friends move in who weren't on the lease. She got evicted.

Then, not long afterwards, Bay and Bobby got evicted from another apartment after it became infested with bedbugs and they couldn't keep up with the extermination fees.

Even after that, they had two more homes. In the first, the entire apartment complex was evacuated because the gas lines were in danger of exploding. In the second, a 3-bedroom house, the landlord refused to fix major problems, like sewage bubbling up into the bathroom, and Bay eventually found out that the house had been condemned.

That's when they ended up in a campground. Bay was still working at Hobby Lobby at the time.

The couple sent their two girls to live temporarily with Bay's sister-in-law. They would visit the campground on the weekends. Bay and Bobby tried to protect them from the full weight of homelessness.

"They thought they were going there to camp and be with their two favorite dogs and go swimming," Bay says. Eventually, the girls went to live with Bay's mom and stepdad. It's been nearly three years.

July 18. HOUSING FOR ONE

I take Bay and Bobby to see a mechanic in Orange to get their car running again. The shop is near where they used to camp at the Santa Ana riverbed. It's also near a place called Mary's Kitchen that offers food, showers and laundry to the homeless.

Mary's Kitchen, founded in 1984 by then-82-year-old Mary McAnena, was a godsend for people who lived in the riverbed encampment with no running water. It was also a community gathering spot. Many people who have been housed since the riverbed eviction, including Bay and Bobby, still frequent Mary's to catch up with friends.

While riding their bikes in the area recently, Bay and Bobby had seen a BMW in the mechanic's parking lot that looked just like theirs and stopped to inquire about parts. When we get there, the owner is out. But he calls Bay's cell phone shortly afterwards and Bay agrees to get the car towed to the shop the next day.

Bay had called me earlier that day, upset, to tell me that her social worker was now saying she couldn't find a place for Bobby and Bay to live together, and that they'd have to split up. The county contractor, Telecare, which runs the Baymont program, would pay for Bay to go to a boarding house. But Bobby would have to figure out his own housing.

Bay often gets emotional talking about her life struggles. At other times, she's all smiles.

The couple has been together for nearly 15 years. But only Bay is a client of Telecare. Bobby is not, even though he's been allowed to stay with her at the Baymont.

It's a common bureaucratic glitch that lawyers representing homeless people evicted from the riverbed have continuously fought to remedy.

"We regularly see, particularly in the mental health supportive housing programs, but in all the programs, this demand that families separate," says Brooke Weitzman, one of the lead lawyers for homeless plaintiffs in the riverbed case, "which is just not in line with any evidence-based approached."

Social workers had said they wanted the couple to work on getting their kids back, which presumably means having the whole family in one house. But now Bobby may have to go back to a shelter, or back to the streets, unless the couple can find a place on their own. That's hard with a record that includes evictions and bad credit.

Bobby is pissed off. He and Bay frequently complain about seeing former acquaintances from the street who have gotten housing despite still sticking needles into their arms and putting forth little effort to be self-sustaining.

"It's pretty sickening to see how the government aids the ones that bull**** the program and shoots down the ones that are struggling and trying," Bobby says.

"I just, I'm tired," he says. "If I know we have housing, then maybe I'll feel better. But I just don't feel good right now about anything."

July 19. CAN YOU TAKE US TO SCHOOL?

I get a text from Bay at 8:09 a.m.

I've gotten several calls and texts like this from Bay, wondering if I could drive them to class, or drive her to a work gig. She always offers to give me gas money.

They really needed to get their car fixed.

July 21. CAR REPAIRS, TRIBAL SUPPORT

Text from Bay:

Bay talks frequently about how "blessed" she is to have a supportive family.

"My parents, they have our back," Bay says, choking up. "People always ask me, 'Why don't you just move back to the east coast and live with your mom and get on your feet?' I have too much to prove to my mom."

Bay is part Native American, a member of the Chippewa tribe of the northeast. She's gotten support over the years from the Southern California Indian Center and other tribal organizations.

She feels like aid from the county and other non-tribal sources is sometimes held back on the assumption that she gets plenty of help through her tribe.

"Everybody thinks tribal members are rich," Bay says. "Every November I get less than $500 from my tribe."

July 23. LESS THAN A MONTH LEFT TO FIND HOUSING

I interview Bay and Bobby outside of a library in Anaheim. On the wall behind them is a painting of a couple sitting on a park bench looking out at a grassy field where two children and two dogs romp.

In the real grassy field adjacent to where we sit on benches, homeless men and women stretch out next to shopping carts, backpacks and bags full of clothes and other belongings.

Bay and Bobby are about to get their vehicle back in working order. They're about to graduate from the culinary course with good prospects for jobs. But they're no closer to finding housing, and they now have less than a month to find something before the Baymont program ends on August 15.

Are they headed toward that portrait of a happy family? Or back to street life and hopeless afternoons sleeping in a park? It's hard to tell.

Graduation day at Open Gate International, July 27

July 27. 'BIG DREAMS' AND A ROOM TO RENT

It's graduation day for Bay, Bobby and the other 17 students of Open Gate International's culinary arts program. They put the final touches on plates of macarons and fruit tarts and a sticky tower of cream puffs, all of which they baked for the occasion.

Family members and friends trickle into the ballroom at the Renaissance Hotel in Newport Beach. Bay's sister-in-law and niece are here from San Marcos, and two friends they've met through work. Bay's social worker from the Baymont shows up late, in time for the banquet but not the ceremony.

After some introductions, Chef Brent Southcombe calls up the graduates one by one.

"Ok, Gonzalo, come on down, brother," he calls out in his Australian accent.

Chef Brent Southcombe congratulates Bobby on graduating from the culinary course. Bobby hopes to open his own restaurant someday, featuring his southern cooking.

He talks about each student's personal strengths, what they've been through and the future he sees for them. When it's Bay's turn, Chef Brent compliments her for her courage and hard work, and for her and Bobby's determination to own their own business.

The couple wants to start up a food truck that also serves meals to the homeless. Bobby eventually wants to own his own restaurant.

"You're one of the hardest workers I've ever had in the kitchen since we started," chef Brent tells Bay when she's onstage. "You and Bobby together, you're a great team."

He calls Bobby up last. "You've got big dreams," Chef Brent says, "and you've been through some valleys that I can't even imagine how you've navigated through those. You are so courageous, brother. You are so courageous. And you're gifted, man. I see you at work, you just get in the zone and you do beautiful work."

Many of the graduates have already found full-time jobs, with help from Chef Brent. But not Bay and Bobby. Bay already has a good-paying job in the food industry, with the party staffing company.

Bobby says he doesn't want the chef to spend time trying to help him land a job until he's sure he has a place to live.

Bay and Bobby are all smiles at the graduation. They have other good news: A fellow student, Dan, has offered to rent them a room in a house he owns in Santa Ana. Bay says she talked it over with her social worker and she's good with it.

"So, it's a go!" she says.

August 2. 'IT GOT AWKWARD'

I get a text from Bay:

I talk with her later and she tells me she had a tense conversation with her potential landlord, Dan, when they were making plans to sign the lease. She's looking for alternatives.

August 3. THE PROMISE OF LONG-TERM HOUSING

I meet Bay outside of the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse in Santa Ana. She shows me a stack of printouts from Craigslist.com.

She says she spent most of the previous day looking at rooms for rent. She shows me photos of one she likes, but says she's scared to send the owner her credit report.

"It's bad," she says.

Bay and I came to the courthouse today to attend a hearing with U.S. District Judge David O. Carter. He's been overseeing the lawsuit filed by advocates for the homeless when the county sought to clear out the riverbed encampment without having enough shelter to house those sleeping there.

The deal that got Bay and Bobby into a motel from the riverbed, and from there into the Baymont program, was brokered in Judge Carter's courtroom.

Since then, the judge has aggressively pushed the county and OC cities to open more homeless shelters, or risk an ever-increasing number of people sleeping in parks and on beaches.

Today, several city leaders step up to the podium and tell the judge about new shelters in the planning stages: a 700-bed shelter in Santa Ana; 275 beds in two locations in Anaheim. The judge tallies up the offers: 1,125 new proposed beds. Judge Carter had calculated the need at 1,550.

"You're right on the cusp of success," he says.

No one speaks of the 750 homeless people who, like Bay and Bobby, were coaxed from the riverbed with the promise of long-term housing. Many are back on the streets.

August 7. FINALLY, A NEW LEASE?

I get a text from Bay:

"Yay!!!" I write back. She tells me the tensions with their potential landlord who they met in the culinary class have been resolved.

They can't move in until they get their rent subsidy check, and they're still waiting. But a home is officially in Bay and Bobby's future — after months of uncertainty, a launching pad for the next chapter of their lives.


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