Gina Pérez bringing clean clothes, blankets and food to her homeless son, 43-year-old Joseph Zamora, who was taking shelter from the rain in a building near Hubbard Street in Glenoaks Boulevard. (SFVS Staff)

This is part one of a two-part series.

Gina Pérez’s 43-year-old son Joseph Zamora has lived on the streets of San Fernando/Sylmar for nearly half his life, suffering from schizophrenia whose diagnosis came too late for effective treatment after years of self-medicating. Seeing her son caught in a revolving door of homelessness, incarceration and hospitalizations over two decades, a cycle that is typical for the mentally ill homeless population, Pérez knows she is his only lifeline.  

After work, she looks for her son every day and brings him clean clothes, blankets and food. Joseph’s mental illness is debilitating and keeps him gripped in the belief that he is safest on the street.  

Joseph Zamora is pictured near the intersection of Fourth Street and Maclay Avenue in San Fernando. Zamora, who just turned 43 this week, suffers from schizophrenia and has been living on the streets for the past two decades. Photo: Gina Pérez

Often crippled with despair and paranoia — the mentally ill homeless population is one of the hardest to reach and toughest to treat. Hospitals oftentimes turn them back onto the street after a few days without follow-up care.     

Pérez hopes a new California law will bring more help for Joseph this year.

“My son is a good candidate for the CARE Courts,” said Pérez, sitting in the living room of her San Fernando apartment on a recent day. She is referring to a court-ordered treatment system being phased in under the Community Assistance, Recovery, and Empowerment (CARE) Act. Signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in September, the law would force some people with untreated schizophrenia and other severe mental illnesses into housing and treatment. 

Homelessness and Legislation

The CARE Act applies to all mentally ill people in California but the legislation was enacted at a time when residents and businesses were clamoring for solutions for a homeless crisis that has impacted communities throughout LA County. The “unhoused” population that numbers nearly 70,000 have been visible beyond skid row, riverbanks and parks for some time. Living under freeway overpasses, on hillsides and on alleyways, a large percentage struggle with mental illness and experience mental health issues living on the street. 

Through the years, Gina Pérez has taken photos of her son Joseph Zamora to document his life and for his protection. Photo: Gina Pérez

One in every four homeless adults in LA County has a severe mental illness like a psychotic disorder and schizophrenia, according to a 2020 study by Stanford University. The survey showed that 27 percent also had a long-term substance use disorder and that a higher percentage of the chronically homeless have a drug addiction, a severe mental illness or both. As of last year, there were almost 70,000 homeless people in the county, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, a leading agency managing federal, state, county and city funds for homeless programs in the region.

Some mentally-ill homeless individuals can often be spotted on public transportation. These days in the San Fernando Valley, riding the Metro Red Line between downtown Union Station and North Hollywood Station means sharing subway cars with unhoused individuals who act disruptively talking out loud to themselves or imaginary people, sleeping onboard, lacking basic personal hygiene and doing drugs. In some cases, they relieve themselves onboard or become violent. 

People living on the street like Joseph, with untreated schizophrenia, could be stabilized with health services, medications and housing, but this support isn’t readily offered and may come only after an arrest or through conservatorships or institutionalization.

Troubles with the Law

Joseph has been arrested at least 20 times for trespassing, petty theft and other crimes, sometimes spending between one and three years in jail, hospitalized for various ailments and in a few conservatorships, all of which meant a temporary roof over his head and regular medication, according to his mother. Then he would be back on the streets, most times near the intersection of Hubbard Street and Glenoaks Boulevard, pushing a shopping cart with his belongings, often disheveled, sometimes trying to stay warm and dry like during the recent cold and rainy days.

Now CARE Courts could offer Joseph treatment and housing for up to two consecutive years. His mother is ready to refer her son as soon as the court process is in place. 

A candidate for CARE Courts can be petitioned by a family member, county and community-based social services, behavioral health providers or first responders like police officers, firefighters and paramedics.

One of the CARE Act authors thinks Joseph qualifies for services under his legislation. “Families are desperate for something [new] to be done for their loved ones [suffering from severe mental illness],” said Tom Umberg (D-Garden Grove) in a phone interview. 

He explained that seven counties are part of a pilot program to set up CARE courts by Oct. 1. They include Orange, San Diego and Riverside counties, with Los Angeles joining two months later. 

December cannot come soon enough for Pérez. 

Impact on the Family

For two decades, the 59-year-old woman’s life has been an endless rollercoaster, knowing her son was living on the streets. But it wasn’t always the case.

She recalls much better times when Joseph was an energetic, happy little 4 year old who was featured in the mural “LA Freeway Kids,” painted for the 1984 Olympics along the Hollywood Freeway in downtown LA and depicting seven children romping. Pérez keeps a framed poster of that mural in her living room. She points at the boy in a white shirt, red shorts and tennis shoes and says with pride, “That’s Joseph. He was always a clean-cut kid growing up.”

Joseph’s first signs of mental health issues appeared in the early 2000s when his family lived in Reseda. The then-teen attended Granada Hills High School. A few years earlier, his father abandoned the family, which included Joseph’s younger sisters, Mandy and Anjelica. “He never recovered from it,” says his mother, adding her son later started using drugs regularly. In 2002, he would be diagnosed with schizophrenia. As her son abused drugs and neglected his mental illness, Pérez kicked him out of the house several times, hoping that “tough love” would set him straight. 

It didn’t work.  

The year 2003 marked the first time Joseph didn’t have a roof over his head, says Pérez, explaining he “became homeless in spurts.” About two years later, police arrested him for criminal activity, one of many times that would see him in and out of jail.

Things would still get worse. Joseph’s behavior spiraled out of control in 2006 when he slapped one of his sisters at home, leading their mother to file a restraining order against him. Pérez later moved to San Fernando but didn’t give the new address to her son. 

Last year, one of Pérez’s neighbors filed another restraining order against Joseph for an incident when he showed up unannounced. “He’s now been homeless since May of 2022,” says his mom. 

Then in February of this year, Joseph also hit his mother on the head while she sheltered him from the rain in her car. He was sleeping in the passenger seat and woke up agitated, according to Pérez. “His psychosis state creates those incidents,” she says. Pérez had him arrested and out of precaution she went to a local hospital to get herself checked out. She was fine.  

Stigmatization of Mental Conditions

Looking back 20 years, Pérez realizes how little she understood mental health. A daughter of Mexican immigrants, she says mental illness is still greatly stigmatized among the Chicano and Latino communities. Eventually, with the help of a relative who was a social worker, Pérez came around to accept that her son suffered from a medical condition.

Sometimes Pérez wonders if she should have paid more attention when teachers said her son talked too much in classes. “Should I have got him tested for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD,” Pérez says she asked herself often. “Should I have taken him to the doctor and asked more questions?” She recommends other parents do what she herself didn’t. “All these things can contribute to what happens to them later in life,” Pérez says. 

Part two of this article will be published next week.

21 replies on “A Mother’s Long Struggle to Help Her Homeless Son”

  1. Our son Adam has mental illness also and trying to find help for him . 2020 to 2022 had him safe in a hotel at Valley Inn. Used all my retirement money 60000 dollars to keep him safe. He started staying at his aunt home 6 months but he has to leave now. They couldn’t handle his behavior. Trying to find help for him now. It’s so hard. I’m 73 my wife is 71. She is so worried for him. Tired. Need help.

    1. I have a similar situation with my adult son..I cry when I see this..all I can do is give my grief to God and never lose hope..miracles happen every day..! Thank you so much fir this article..I will come back to read all the comments later..on a mission to save my son.


  3. I to have a son in the streets homeless I think about him every day I too was homeless 15 years back out Thier again I just wish I could know he’s ok ok name Frankie Cruz age 38 born 12/18/84 stay in Hollywood I think about every person out Thier it’s hell with this weather I pray to god everyday to watch every person that Thier dress food and shelter I lived 10 years in a van people around the world I ask you to Bellevue in Jesus and repent of your sin because people don’t think Jesus is coming back please believe or you are going to suffer alot the end is hear prayers to every soul including my son be ready the time is near

  4. I feel a sense of shame admitting that l have been guilty of passing harsh judgement on homeless people on the street, this story has touched me deeply and it will have in impact on my sense of compassion for these people.

  5. I see many people walking at night in Beverly hills and west Hollywood. Many are homeless and I pray for them .I hope this care act will help not over exert into lots of beaureacracy

  6. My heart goes out to Mrs. Perez!!! I too am going through the same thing, with my loved one. I live in the city of Santa Ana, and resources are very limited, and most of the time, are not available. The criteria that is required for food, and basic shelter. My loved one, just can’t meet. As most of the mentally affected, substance use disorder people, who are unhoused/homeless. In addition to their situation of mental illness, and substance use addiction. They face deplorable trauma, on a daily basis. That just compounds their depression, and addiction. They are people who were once, functioning mother’s, father’s, son’s, daughters, and are very loved, and constantly worried about by there families. I was so glad to read Mrs. Perez’s story. Myself, and many mother’s that I know can relate to her!

  7. This story breaks my heart as it is very close to my own story. I also have a homeless son who had a mental illness. Our system has failed him and my family over and over again. He’s currently incarcerated and I pray that he is not being mistreated or hurt. My prayers for Gina, Joseph and Adam and his family. 🙏🏽

    1. Thank you Gina for sharing your story. How sad it is for our loved ones with serious Mental disorders. I continue to learn just how challenging Mental illness is and I pray for better care and understanding which is truly needed and deserved. 🙏🙏💕

  8. I was raised by a mom diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. When my dad died, I became her primary caregiver. Two years later, my younger sister exploded in a psychotic episode and also was diagnosed with the same mental illness. I lived with loving family members with such a cruel mental illness from the time I was 10 until I had to save myself and left at the age of 36. By then, my own mental health was in jeopardy and I weighed nearly 400 pounds. My heart goes out to this mom and to the countless families struggling to navigate this disease. I hope this new initiative helps bring some relief. I’ve written books on my own experience. I know writing can be powerful therapy…it has been for me.

  9. I pray for all the Mothers/Father as I am the Mother of a Son that suffers from mental illness, it’s a road that’s difficult and painful to see your once bouncing baby turn into someone you don’t recognize. Praying more times for my Son, he has a heart of gold but when his mind is gone he’s out of control. We suffer most times in silence, doing what we can to help our loved one and the deep pain that we feel from feeling helpless and sometimes even hopeless to what we feel inside. God continue to give us the strength to push forward. God watch over our loved ones that are suffering in the streets, laughed at and mock because people don’t understand that they are truly ill with Mental Illness.
    Please have compassion for others.!”

  10. I too have an child with mental illness, and the struggle to keep her medicated and keeping up with her doctors appointments has been challenging. What a parent wouldn’t do for their child, but because she’s over 18 and can make her own decisions, I don’t have a voice to help her.. The system needs to change, our mentally ill children don’t know their sick, how could they, when they don’t know themselves!!! My heart goes out to every family member going through this, blessings to you, and know you are not alone in your pain.

  11. In 1980 Jimmy Carter passed Mental Health Systems Act of 1980.
    A year later was repealed by Congress.
    As Governor of California, Ronald Reagan signed the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act in 1972, making Illegal the mandatory institutionalization of mental healath patients by family members and Civil Courts. This measure made population dropped in the majority of Mental Institutions and Hospitals. The Task force that investigated in the late 1990’s these institutions found that the cost per capita skyrocketed to 114,000 dollars /year. This lead to closures.
    It is a shame that, In USA, that population , increasing every day, is now a victim of the law. Economics can be fixed, there are many tools that legislators could use. The Homeless population with Mental Problems is the majority out there.


  12. My brother was diagnosed with Schizophrenia back in the eighties. As a child back in the those days I remember the struggle my parents would go through the same as my sisters and brothers. The fear we had around him becomes a struggle as one goes into adult hood. My mom is my brother’s conservator and while he’s in his late 50s my mom is in her late 70s, we are now in a different stage. My mother has become tired and my brother seems to decline. Hopefully we could get him in a facility soon to be re-evaluated.

  13. Hi I’m in the same situation as Mrs Perez my son is out in the street he has been in and out of sober living now he is out in the street he was diagnosed also schizophrenia and relapse asoon ask he starts to work My daughter and I have tried to help so many time but he can stop the drugs I last talk to him on Monday he said he was in Long Beach trying to get a job but now I’ve been calling him and his phone is of.I pry to God every night that he keeps him safe he has two beautiful children that need him and all my family have tried to talk to him help but he can stop .with the drug he uses he is completely different person and he get mad .I hope we do get help so that I gm can have my son back he was such a loving person and loves his children and he is hurting not beening in there lives and not been able to provide for them. I’m scare that one day he will not be able to remember then or us .I hope this law passes

  14. I have an Adult son in the same condition in Long Beach and have been searching for a resolution. Thank you for this Article

  15. Just like many parents here, I also have a son going through this same thing. He is only 20, and I worry about him everyday.

  16. This breaks my heart to see our homeless citizens with psychological problems on the streets all over the world. This is exactly what’s wrong with our system and society. Instead of judging them, we should try to open facilities to house people like this many families are in need of some sort of supplemental help. They need to help their loved ones, just like this great mother is helping her son. I help the homeless by collecting clothing,shoes,tents,sleeping bags whatever I can assist them with. But, if we all could put our minds together to help them this world would be a better place for us all. Unfortunately greed overpowers anything else. I just hope that one day the homelessness in our system can be vanished.

  17. My heart goes with all of you, I will keep you in my prayers, and may God bless your children wherever they are. Remember Si El cuida de las aves cuidara tambien de ti.

  18. I have twin boys, grown men. One is on the streets in Covina. Is not medicated. Can’t afford a motel for too long. Needs to be court ordered for meds and find housing. We had been involved with NAMI FOR YEARS

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