It’s 9 p.m., and my Porsche’s thermometer reads 55 degrees. Felicia Tichenor is wrapped in a thin blanket on her concrete “bed” behind the Staples at Gene Autry Way and Ramon Road.
We’re supposed to have a night photo shoot, but Tichenor is out of it. Next to her is a big Budweiser can.
She’s not going to pose tonight.
Tichenor, 41, is not good at keeping appointments. She has been homeless for eight years now. Her blonde hair is tangled, and her blue eyes are bloodshot. It wasn’t always like this. She had a home once, and a family, too.
“My mom died when I was 14, and my dad in ’06,” Tichenor says, shrugging her shoulders. “I’ve a son; he’s 20 now.”
She stops to light a cigarette. “At 32, I lost my job; things in my life turned for worse. I lost all I had, and when the money ran out, I ended up on the streets. I’ve been homeless ever since.”
She admits she made some bad choices. Addictions, drinking in particular, didn’t help.
“I love my Budweiser,” she grins, “but I don’t drink hard liquors, and I’ve done my drugs when I was younger.”
Her story is pretty typical, sadly, for a homeless person here in the desert. Except for one detail: Tichenor owes about $7,000 in unpaid tickets and citations.
She doesn’t own a car, nor does she drive one. She doesn’t even own a bicycle. She keeps everything she owns in a shopping cart. That’s part of the problem—a number of her tickets are for the illegal use of a shopping cart.
“I’ve gotten about 16 tickets for pushing a shopping cart full of my stuff around (the area of) Walmart and Staples,” Tichenor says. “I even got tickets if I leave a cart around here with my personal belongings in it.
“I’ve got to put my blankets and my clothing somewhere. … That’s all I’ve got! My whole property!”
She’s also received a number of tickets due to her drinking—for drinking in public and being drunk in public.
“I did get tickets for ‘camping’ and sleeping at the grounds here,” she says, “and for public drunkenness (and possession of an) open container.”
Tichenor has her own explanation for why she’s been picked on.
“Someone from the Walmart called the police and complained, I guess,” she says. “… I’ve got it; (the police officer’s) gotta do his job, but I’ve got no money to pay for any of it! If I had seven grand, I’d be living the hell outta the streets.”
Jeffrey Adams, 44, right, has had a similar problem with court fines. His latest “Failure to Pay Notice” stood at $2,552.68 as of Oct. 9. By now, it’s likely higher due to penalties.
“I went to the public defender, got a payment plan and paid the first $50, but then fell behind,” says Adams as he produces the court papers from his backpack. “I’m ill now, in need of a hernia surgery, and I’ve got not a penny to pay for fines. All I’ve got now is my health scare!”
During the day, Adams sticks around the park at the Palm Springs Library, and he spends nights at the Roy’s Desert Resource Center, a local shelter. He hopes to get his hernia surgery soon, before it gets strangulated.
Like Adams, Tichenor went to the Riverside County Public Defender for help. However, again like Adams, she wasn’t able to make it to court as often as she needed; after all, they don’t have their own transportation.
“I took a two-hour bus ride to Indio court, and I got a public defender, but it didn’t work for me,” Tichenor says, sounding resigned. “It’s hard to make it anywhere on time when you’re homeless.”
Daniel Schmidt, a seasoned local lawyer who spent a large part of his legal career working as a public defender in Indio, has an impressive record of representing the underprivileged.
“These cases are so bizarre when big-buck companies, like Walmart, are causing such a burden to our court system—the judges, the police force, jails and, in particular, the public defender offices—because someone has removed a shopping cart from their lot!” says Schmidt. “Let the Walmart take those individuals to small-claims court instead of spending the taxpayers’ money on such frivolous charges and offenses.”
According to the Riverside County 2013 Homeless Count and Subpopulation Survey, there are 242 unsheltered homeless persons in Indio, while Palm Springs has 60, Cathedral City 59, Coachella 37, Palm Desert 11, Desert Hot Springs 9, La Quinta 5, Rancho Mirage 1, and Indian Wells 0, with dozens more in the unincorporated areas and in the towns heading southeast of the Coachella Valley down to the Salton Sea.
How many of those homeless people owe hundreds or thousands in unpaid tickets, like Adams and Tichenor? It’s hard to tell; we couldn’t even get the numbers for the town of Palm Springs. Sgt. Harvey Reed, of the Palm Springs Police Department, says “it would take a public record request to reach the exact number of the citations issued to the local homeless population.”
In other words, there are probably a lot of them—and society is paying as a result.
“I guess eventually,” says Tichenor, “I’ll do time, because there’s nothing on Earth I can do about that seven grand fine.”