“I still look for places to sleep. Where could I go for the night? It’s been so many years, and I have a home, but I still look. That never goes away.”
It’s been 37 years since Kim Valentine left her family. She was just 14, a straight-A ninth-grader who was on the student council. She’s a bit tight-lipped as she thinks back to that time. “I was living in an abusive situation,” she recalls, “and I decided leaving was a better idea than staying.”
She slept in unlocked laundry rooms and empty apartments, on people’s lawns and on the beach. Eventually, she was put in foster care, then a group home for unwed mothers. At 16, she was told she would now be legally emancipated. Unfamiliar with the process, Valentine left without any documents proving her new legal status. “I was given 12 days’ notice,” Valentine says. “I had to leave the group home. I went back to Long Beach and lived in some terrible places.”
She worked what jobs she could, such as waitressing at Bob’s Big Boy, while getting her GED. She joined the Marine Corps at 18 and went to school to be a paralegal. After her service ended, she earned an AA at Golden West College, then a law degree from Western State University. By then, she had three kids, had gotten married and was living a middle-class life in Orange County. Her youngest was 1 when she took the bar exam. Life was nothing like what it was when she was a teen. “I have this whole other life now,” she says. Yet she would still look.
“My youngest has lived in the same house his whole life,” Valentine says. “I saw these kids, all being raised in Mission Viejo, and they were just in what I call the OC bubble.”
When her son was the age she was when she left home, she decided she wanted him to see a different Orange County, the side she knew existed because she once lived it. So she got together some of his friends, and they filled 50 brown bags with hygiene items and blankets. “I was working on a case in San Diego, and I knew of an encampment down there,” she recalls. They loaded up the bags and the kids and just went. When they got there, she let the kids lead the way. “The homeless would feel less disrespected if they got them from the kids,” she says.
Her son gave the first bag. It was a woman, she recalls. “He talked with her for a while,” Valentine says. “It was surprising how impactful it was to him.”
Before long, the kids had finished handing out the bags, and her son wanted to do more. Valentine ditched the paper bags and switched to backpacks. She put out the word, requesting friends collect hotel-sized products. (“[Homeless people] have to be able to carry everything,” she says. “You can’t give them full-sized bottles of shampoo!”) Assembly took place in her garage. Their first time back, 100 backpacks were distributed. The next time, 250, and the next, 500. Operation Helping Hands was born.
All ages help now, putting together about 2,500 backpacks per year. Younger kids and other volunteers fill the bags on Saturday, then groups of high school kids deliver them directly to people. Valentine keeps still other assembled bags in her office lobby for anyone to take, keep with them and give to someone in need. Valentine knows how much these gestures can mean to a person. “People have this perception that if you’re homeless, it’s because you’re lazy, et cetera,” she says. “But that’s not true. . . . Sometimes, you’re homeless because there are circumstances worse than living on the street.”
She recalls a sign she saw at one encampment: “Don’t judge us because you’re only one paycheck away from being my neighbor.” In a county with rising housing costs and a growing homeless population, the likelihood of that happening increases. “There is something so profound about waking up in the morning and wondering where you’re going to sleep that night.”