Homeless Pasadena man finds peace on the golf course

I know this isn’t high school-sports related, but I wanted to share this with you all. Almost three months ago I began working on a story about a homeless man I encountered while on assignment covering the Pasadena City Golf Championship. I was intrigued that several golfers who are regulars at Brookside Golf Club knew Lawrence Hunter well. It took a few days to gain his trust, but when I did, Hunter opened up and allowed me to spend time with him. We lunched at Brookside and hung out at his regular spots, like the cement channel at Brookside and an offramp near the Rose Bowl.

A version of this article appeared in print on Saturday, July 24, 2010, on page A1 of the Star-News.

By Miguel A. Melendez, Staff Writer

PASADENA — Lawrence Hunter is embraced with a warm hug from a waitress at the Brookside Golf Club restaurant, where he goes each morning for coffee.

She’s happy to see him break his routine of only sipping coffee. On this occasion, Hunter accepts a lunch invitation and orders a bacon-cheeseburger and fries.

“No soda,” he says. “I don’t drink that high-fructose stuff.”

Hunter, 51, is no stranger to Brookside – he’s been coming for more than a decade – but he has never shot a round of golf there in his life.

Instead, he spends his days and nights living in cement channel alongside holes No. 7 and 8, two greens featuring neatly-manicured Poanna grass with a backdrop of the picturesque San Gabriel Mountains.

Hunter patiently waits for errant golf balls flowing down the Arroyo Seco.

It’s how he survives.

A green fish net tied to the end of a long aluminum pole makes it easy to catch the balls. Hunter has learned over the years how to spot a quality ball from a bad one from afar. He collects them and separates them into zip-lock bags. When he has enough, he sells them back to golfers. Hunter would not say how much he earns, but says it’s enough for food for him and his dog, Nuclear, a year-old pit with a powdery white coat.

The cops have been called — a few times, said David Sams, who heads up golf course operations for the Rose Bowl. But in eight years, police have come out only “three or four times” in response to complaints about Hunter, Sams said.

Mostly, course officials have come to accept Hunter as a sort of pseudo-resident. “It comes to the point where bygones are bygones,” Sams said.

Ask people who know him and they’ll say that something about Hunter doesn’t add up. They use words like “bright,” “friendly” and “kind” when describing him. They can’t understand how he came to live isolated in a flood control channel — and why he’s still there.

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“That’s the sad thing,” Sams said. “He’s well-spoken and knows what he’s talking about. I imagine he’s had a tough life.”

“He’s a pleasant guy,” said Pasadena police Officer Bob Jenkins, who golfs at Brookside. “I don’t have anything negative to say about him. It’s unfortunate he’s down there.”

As Hunter tells it, his life was shaped by false starts, poor choices and missed opportunities. He says he used to do drugs — PCP and cocaine — but says he quit and has been sober for years. His record includes felony and drug arrests going back to 1984, said Pasadena acting Deputy Police Chief Mike Korpal.

But since 2003, Hunter’s run-ins with the law have been minor, mostly for not having his dog on a leash, Korpal added.

On any given night in Pasadena, nearly 1,200 homeless people are in shelters, transitional housing or on the streets, according to the Union Station Homeless Services.

Larry Johnson, director of programs at Union Station Homeless Services and a licensed clinical social worker, said Hunter fits the definition of someone who is chronically homeless.

“They just prefer a more solitary kind of way of life,” said Johnson, who added that Union Station has not dealt with Hunter in the past. “They tend to resist any of the social services afforded to them; shelter or anything that seems to be very confining and requires a lot of social interaction.”

Raised in Pasadena, Hunter said he attended Washington School and Blair High School before leaving to attend continuation school, where he eventually got kicked out. He doesn’t say why.

At age 37, Hunter went back to school, enrolling at Long Beach City College; the registrar’s office confirmed he attended for four years, and a fine he owes the school prevents him from earning his associate of arts degree. He’s not about to pay for it.

A degree is just a piece of paper to him, he says.

Some years ago, Hunter got a settlement from an accident, but “gambled most of it away on scratchers.”

“I wanted to buy my father’s house on Westgate (just a few blocks northeast of the Rose Bowl) in Pasadena. I took several classes in carpentry and money management. Guess which one I failed?” he said.

Hunter said he thought he could buy the house by gambling, but that plan turned sour.

Ever since, he said, he’s been living on the streets.

But it was an incident when he was 8 that changed his life and set him on his erratic course, he said. He and a classmate collided and Hunter suffered a severe concussion that went untreated, he said.

“All my problems started there,” he said.

His mother, Juanita, still lives in Monrovia, he said, but his father, Hurbert, died three years ago from cancer. Juanita, 74, knows all about her son’s troubled past and struggles on the streets.

When reached by phone for an interview, Juanita quickly interrupted with a concerned tone.

“What has happened?” she said. “When I get these kinds of phone calls it scares the hell out of me.”

Juanita said Hunter in the past briefly stayed with her but can’t on a permanent basis because of housing regulations.

“I try not to think about (his situation),” she said, “but I’m constantly thinking about him.”

When his van — his former home — got towed a few years ago for unpaid parking tickets and outdated registration tags, Hunter set up a semi-permanent camp in the channel and called it home. (His belongings are hidden from public view, stored under one of the seven pedestrian bridges connecting the two courses. His more expensive equipment such as gas containers he uses for cooking are stored in traps and bunks only he knows how to find. Hunter asked that their location not be identified.)

Hunter’s presence was much too noticeable, and soon he began making friends.

“He’s one of the kindest, most wonderful men I’ve met,” said Janci Farwell, a member of Brookside’s women’s club, who met Hunter about eight years ago and was impressed.

“One time I took him to the store and there was a person bumming, and he gave him some of his own money. He has an incredibly big heart. You can tell because of the way he takes care of his dogs,” she said.

Farwell grew such a strong comfort level with Hunter that she felt compelled to invite him to her home for Thanksgiving dinner. He initially was skeptic and shy about the invitation and asked if he could think it over for a few days.

Hunter gave in, and enjoyed a hot dinner, conversation and even stayed to watch the NFL Thanksgiving game. He turned down an invitation two years ago because he had several dogs at the time and didn’t want to be an inconvenience. Farwell instead brought him a plate to the channel.

“He’s very guarded. The first time I invited him he said he’d have to think about it. He said, ‘I don’t really do that,’” said Farwell.

In gratitude, Hunter named one of his puppies Ms. Janci.

“When she took me to her home for Thanksgiving it was my first Thanksgiving dinner in nine years,” said Hunter. “If we had more people like Janci, we’d have no problems in this country.”

When Hunter’s bike got washed away in a flood in the channel, Farwell and several other golfers donated a bike to him.

Juanita, who has not seen Hunter in almost year but often calls him on a cell phone he uses with pre-paid minutes, was happy when informed about the generosity others have shown toward her son.

“Goes to show there are really nice people in this world,” she said.

Because he speaks in a low baritone, people are sometimes intimidated by Hunter, who stands 5-feet-9 inches and has a medium built frame But they shouldn’t be intimidated, said Officer Jenkins.

“Some people are apprehensive because he has such a deep voice. Will he harm you? No. Will he defend himself? Yes. I’ve personally never had a negative encounter, and neither the people who play golf with me,” he said.

“It’s really sad because I sit there talking to him and you know he’s bright,” Farwell said. “He keeps up with sports, listens to talk radio and keeps up with issues like the elections. He’s very knowledgeable, looks into things and studies them. It just breaks my heart because this man should have a job and be living a normal life.”

The police’s Homeless Outreach Psychological Evaluation (H.O.P.E.) Team has reached out to Hunter, but he always declined its help, Korpal said, the the acting deputy chief.

“There’s a growing movement to house homeless in a very low demand kind of housing where not too much is expected of them,” Johnson said. “It’s possible something like that would suit him.”

Not for Hunter.

“I’d rather be in the channel,” Hunter said. “There’s more room and I’m alone. Besides, I can’t take my dog with me.”

He checked into a local motel recently, just to catch the Lakers game on TV, but he didn’t sleep well.

“I’m not used to the bed. I’m used to sleeping outside on concrete,” said Hunter, who keeps his salt and pepper beard neatly groomed.

Johnson, the union station director, recalls a person who about 10 years ago checked into an occupancy complex in Pasadena.

“This particular person would use his room to store his belongings,” he said, “but would go outside to sleep on the ground. We got him housing, but he wouldn’t use it to sleep. He just wasn’t comfortable sleeping in there.”

A few months back, when Hunter failed to show up at Brookside for several weeks in a row, Farwell grew concerned.

“What I didn’t know was he was hanging out over by an offramp,” she said. “I was excited, because I drove by and gave his dog treats and gave him some money. I worry about the glitch somewhere in his brain that might set him off.”

Hunter doesn’t like panhandling. He says he does it only when things are slow at the golf course.

“I’d rather work for my money,” he says.

Settled at a nearby offramp on a recent warm morning, Hunter has a modest setup with Nuclear nearby.

More than several drivers wave hello and drop off dog food. Janci’s son, Tyson, is among them.

It’s a long walk back down the road that snakes into the Arroyo. Hunter’s mind wanders, and he dreams.

He hopes to save enough money to pay his parking tickets, get a valid driver’s license and buy a van so he can drive with his dogs.

Finding a job isn’t in his plan, but Hunter fantasizes about someday having a home.

If he did, he said, he’d pitch a tent in the back yard, alone, where nobody would bother him.

Or his dogs.

miguel.melendez@sgvn.com

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  • Amused Reader

    Wow, what a story. Great job. Hope for the best for Mr. Hunter.

  • Apache Joe

    That is quite a story. Very insightful into a perspective that 99% of American’s do not understand.

  • New York

    Thank you, Miguel. I enjoyed reading this and learning about this man’s life. Great piece of journalism. Erwin R. Fletcher would be proud!

  • Thanks

    I sometimes catch myself waiting for the next time one of my son’s name is in the paper and then I step away from the “self centered” feeling I get when I read something like this. Reality is something that always allows us to be grounded again. Good story.

  • Tom S

    MM:
    I enjoyed reading this article. I know youve been looking forward to seeing your work published. Front page no less.
    I know Ive donated a few balls to Lawrence and probably have bought some of them back over the last few years.
    Again, congratulations on a great article
    Tom S

  • C.Dawg

    This wins the Pulitzer by a landslide. Lets start the ccampaign you deserve it Miguel

  • SGaletti

    Miguel, great work. What a touching story.