WALNUT CREEK -- Two homeless men who lived in the city have died of weather related causes, after long declining offers of aid amid what some say is a crisis of thousands of people seeking shelter in Contra Costa every month.
A security guard called for help after finding John Dulik, 64, behind a vacant building on South California Boulevard across from Trader Joe's on Jan. 6, police said this week.
Hypothermia was suspected as a cause of death, but the autopsy results have not been released, said Walnut Creek police Lt. Sean Conley.
The second man, Todd Cambra, was also a downtown homeless man. He died last week at a hospital. His cause of death was not revealed, but he was suffering from frostbite, a city police officer said.
Both men were known as longtime city residents who preferred to live on the streets.
Conley said officers sent to check on homeless people out in the cold spoke to both men, but they refused help.
"We made several attempts to get Mr. Cambra and Mr. Dulik into shelter," Conley said Tuesday. But the police cannot force homeless people into a shelter: "All we can do is offer it to them."
Police knew Dulik, Conley said, and over the years had tried to help him. Sometimes, when he was too intoxicated to care for himself, they got him into a jail cell.
"He was a chronic alcoholic and had drugs and alcohol" in his body, Conley said.
Cambra, he said, had been treated at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley for a head injury in November and left against medical advice.
At the hospital's request, an officer checked on Cambra who, Conley said, replied that he was talking to his social worker about going back.
"Then he was brought to the hospital again. ... He had frostbite. It sounded like it was to the point where they were deciding whether to amputate," Conley said.
Walnut Creek temperatures fell below freezing much of the last week of December. The first week of the new year was cold and wet with an overnight low of 48 degrees and light rain at midnight Tuesday.
Workers at Trinity Center, which is operating a small shelter this winter, knew both men.
"Both had hypothermia," said Donna Colombo, Trinity Center's executive director. Cambra had frostbite gangrene, she said.
He sometimes visited Trinity Center though he was not a member, she said. "He wanted to stay outside to do what he wanted to do," she said.
Dulik was a member of the center, but he also did not visit often, she said.
Frostbite is a danger when homeless people using alcohol and drugs sleep outside on concrete even if the temperature is above freezing, Colombo said.
The two men died as a thousand people a month in Contra Costa seek some sort of homeless service, primarily housing, a county leader said.
"It is a travesty in this country," said Rhonda James, executive director of the Contra Costa County Crisis Center. "We don't have enough resources" to resolve homeless issues.
She was particularly frustrated by the inability to come to grips with those who refuse aid.
Her agency can make referrals to 17 shelters in Contra Costa and elsewhere, but it is not enough, she said. Housing vouchers are available, she said, but landlords are leery of accepting renters who may have criminal records or mental health problems or who simply lack credit.
Cambra at one time had been active in the late Susan Prather's Fresh Start homeless service program, said a Walnut Creek woman who knew him.
He had trained as a firefighter and was Prather's right-hand man in the late '90s, said Laura Halpin. She is a co-founder of Creek Kids Care, a youth group that raises money for homeless supplies such as blankets and tents.
"He was very articulate and clean cut," she said.
But after the charismatic Prather's death in 2008, Fresh Start fell apart and when Cambra resurfaced "he looked a lot different," she said. "His body was worn, he was missing a couple of teeth, he wasn't the same guy."
"If there had been some kind of safety net, he would have made it," she said. "He was a pretty wonderful guy."
Colombo expressed frustration over a wider lack of concern in the city.
"I think the police and we are doing what we can with what we've got," she said. Trinity Center set up a limited winter shelter at St. Paul's Episcopal Church after considerable opposition, but it is full.
"I would like to see other solutions," she said, suggesting the county, other churches, people with empty buildings might do more.
"I can only do so much," she said.
The center's winter program is trying to find jobs and housing for each of its 29 registered clients. One has found a job and housing in Monterey, two have job interviews, and several have vouchers for housing if they can find a landlord who will accept them, she said.
Five clients renounced drugs and alcohol after the two men died, she said.
"It's not perfect, but we're doing what we can do," she said.
Contact Andrew McGall at 925-945-4703. Follow him at twitter.com/AndrewMcGall.