In the early morning hours of December 21, a homeless couple huddled together for warmth beneath an overpass at Bear Creek Drive and G Street in Merced. The couple, Joseph Edwards and Bernice Gonzales, had sought shelter from a powerful storm that was drenching the city. Suddenly, a confusion of noise drowned out the sound of the rapidly moving creek water.
Edwards jumped up and ran in the direction of the commotion. He saw a VW “Beetle,” nose down on the creek bank, just as it flipped over and landed upside down in 10 feet of murky rushing water. Near the submerged vehicle, he spotted a woman screaming for help as she bobbed in the current. “I was scared,” he later related. “The first thing in my mind…how many people were in the car?”
Shouting to Gonzales to call 911, he tossed his cell phone to her, then jumped into the frigid creek. As he pulled the woman to safety, she begged him to go back and try to find her three friends. Without hesitation, he did so, guided only by the glow of the car’s taillights. One by one, this selfless rescuer located the remaining three victims and pulled them to safety. Just as he dragged the last person from the icy waters, the rescue teams arrived on the scene.
Reynolds told the emergency personnel that all the car’s occupants had been pulled to safety. The four young adults were promptly rushed into warm vehicles and sent to Mercy Medical Center for evaluation. There they were checked for hypothermia, treated for minor injuries and then released. Meanwhile, Edwards remained on the scene to give a statement to the officers.
Shivering and completely soaked, he finally was handed an ambulance blanket for warmth. The two received words of thanks from the police chief and $5 for coffee from another officer. Then the crews drove away, leaving the couple standing in the relentless rainstorm, still with no shelter. Yet at the same time this was going on, a group of homeless people slept nearby, sheltered and dry, in spaces provided by a local church.
Members of this church had taken notice of the plight of a number of homeless who had recently been forced by the City of Merced to abandon their temporary “camps”—just at the onset of the cold winter months. For many of these homeless, the vacated camps had been their last option. Church members recognized their dilemma and decided to offer them safe haven from the winter weather on the church grounds.
The church is located within a comfortably middle-class residential area. When residents saw the first of many tents being erected in a grassy area near the chapel, the protests began. Neighbors were offended by the proximity of the “undesirable” new neighbors, voicing fears for the safety of their families and concern for the potential loss of property values. Still, the church leaders stood firm.
The homeless people were allowed to remain on the church property provided they obeyed stringent rules of conduct. Curfews were set, and alcohol and drugs were forbidden. Public health and sanitation issues were addressed and met. In response to the neighbors’ concerns, the church made every effort to minimize the impact of the temporary camp on the surrounding households. But the barrage of complaints continued to escalate.
Then, in the early morning hours of December 21, came a remarkable happening: Joseph Edwards risked his life to pull four young adults out of Bear Creek, assisted by his common-law wife, Bernice. If these two heroes had been afraid to risk their personal safety by entering the frigid creek, the story could have had a very different ending—a tragic one. Instead, the four and their families were given the priceless gift of awakening the next day and finding their lives intact.
When the local newspapers headlined the heroic rescue, things began to take a turn for the better. Joseph and Bernice received a gift of cash donated by employees of the local Foster Farms plant in Livingston. The amount was large enough to allow the two to rent an apartment. The local newspaper quoted one of the donors who said, “It’s Christmas, and someone could be burying their family right now. Instead, Joseph saved them. Those four people got their Christmas miracle, and we wanted to give Joseph and his wife their Christmas miracle.”
News of the rescue spread nationwide. The Internet carried videotapes and news of Gonzales and Edwards’ courageous actions from as far away as Florida. But at the local level, their story began to lose interest. (Ironically, much of the local news focused on the powerful storm that continued to batter the region.) Many of us “locals” waited expectantly to hear of plans for public recognition of the couple’s heroism. We’re still waiting.
Edwards had told reporters that they hoped to be in their new home by December 25 and that he wanted to “get a little Christmas tree” to put in the middle of their apartment. “We’ll enjoy this Christmas,” he said. He remarked that since the rescue, people seem to be more caring. “Now it’s not like we’re just…homeless people,” he mused. “People are nicer.” Then Edwards expressed his gratitude to all those who made donations. His closing words were, “I’m blessed.”
And so are we—the residents of Merced—“blessed” by the presence of two selfless individuals. Homeless they may be, and subjected to the disdain of those who view homelessness as a condition of the incompetent. Homeless they may be, as so could many of us, given the same misfortunes. But the heroism of Edwards and Gonzales stands as a clear reminder that the lack of a “home” does not define one’s character.
Their actions do.