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Brane Jevric

Twenty years ago, I covered my first Palm Springs International Film Festival.

The PSIFF was a much more modest event back then, and that year, the star of the festival was Sophia Loren. I remember it well—since she kissed me before a sea of cameras! She did it after I publicly asked her to send a message of peace to my country, the war-torn Yugoslavia.

Then and there, I fell in love with Sophia—and the festival, too.

In 2002, I was invited to a special event celebrating the 90th birthday of Loren’s husband, famed producer Carlo Ponti, with their son, Carlo Ponti Jr., conducting a symphony; their second son, director Edoardo Ponti, was also in attendance. I believe Spencer’s Restaurant owner Harold Matzner underwrote the event.

Matzner’s a Jersey fellow and a longtime PSIFF chairman. Following the event, I went to see him at his office, and we came up with an idea for the next PSIFF: Matzner was going to pay to bring an entire symphonic orchestra, with conductor Ponti Jr., to the fest! The orchestra was going to perform “Lara’s Theme,” from Dr. Zhivago, a movie produced by Ponti Sr. The idea was that Sophia Loren would give a lifetime achievement award to her hubby, and Edoardo Ponti would show his new movie at the fest.

It didn’t happen, because Ponti Sr. fell ill.

It takes a lot to run a film festival, including loads of money, and the PSIFF has long depended on the hefty help of its wealthy supporters. The Palm Springs International Film Society’s grand dame, the late Jackie Lee Houston, hosted so many events for the fest that it’s hard to count them all. The city of Palm Springs has pitched in, too; hey, the mayor, Steve Pougnet, has even been employed by the festival to assist in bringing in the dough!

Aside from money, the growing film fest needed star power—and, again, a lot of it. The fest’s most connected publicist, Ronni Chasen, steadily delivered the stars to the fest for a decade. Shockingly, Chasen was shot to death in 2010. According to the reports, Chasen was shot four times by a convicted felon while she drove her Mercedes on Sunset in Los Angeles. Later, the man who allegedly shot her killed himself during a standoff with the police. (There are many conspiracy theories about her tragic end, of course.) The festival offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to the capture and conviction of the perpetrator. The PSIFF is run by a nonprofit organization, so Chairman Matzner, once again, footed the bill.

But, as they say, the show must go on. Nowadays, the PSIFF—going into its 25th year—appears to be a well-oiled machine, with exclusive sponsors and record attendance. Still, by film-festival standards, the Palm Springs fest is fairly young; after all, the Venice Film Festival just celebrated its 70th year.

Though the PSIFF often has some Best Foreign Language Film Oscar buzz attached to its image, when it comes to popularity, the PSIFF lags behind the Tribeca fest, founded by Robert De Niro, as well as Robert Redford’s Sundance fest. The fact is, the star-power of the movie icons serves their festivals well. Here, the PSIFF was founded by the late Sonny Bono, in order to bring movie glamor back to Palm Springs. I’ve covered film fests in destination cities such as Rio and Bangkok, and little Palm Springs can’t match them in terms of glamor and image.

The tradition and reputation of a film fest matters. The legacy of a film fest matters. But what matters most are the films: Despite the tycoons and the big stars, a film festival is really about the movies being presented—and the PSIFF always offers a top-notch selection of films. And those films are what attendees will remember the most.

That’s a wrap!

The Palm Springs International Film Festival takes place Jan. 3-13, 2014. Most films are $11 or $12. For more information, including pass information and a complete schedule, visit www.psfilmfest.org.

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.”

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