LAWNDALE, Calif. — A public memorial is planned for a homeless man who was a fixture for decades in a Southern California city where residents are mourning his kindness and independence.

Gerardo Michael Juarez was found dead of heart failure Oct. 23 in front of a gas station in Lawndale where he spent much of the past 30 years, the Daily Breeze newspaper reported Wednesday. The 56-year-old was discovered after employees grew concerned when he didn’t come in for his regular morning coffee.

More than 2,000 people have signed an online petition to erect a plaque in Juarez’s honor in the suburban city of about 30,000 residents south of Los Angeles.

“You just always felt comfortable with him,” said 24-year-old Edward Vieyra, who’s co-planning an event Dec. 16 to remember Juarez and raise money for homeless charities. “He was just a great person in the community. He’s been around since my mother was a teenager.”

Two days after his death, more than 100 residents gathered in front of the station to mourn him with notes, flowers and candles.

Juarez, known for his scraggly beard and dark sunglasses, often kept to himself and seemed uninterested in accepting gifts when people approached him with money, clothing or other items. Those who knew him told the newspaper that he struggled with drugs and mental illness as a teenager.

Few knew much about Juarez, other than he went by Mike and enjoyed Camel cigarettes, Taco Bell and malt liquor.

People who knew Juarez before mental illness set in told the Daily Breeze that he would have gotten a kick out of the community outpouring. They said his gentle, friendly personality remained even during the rough times.

Childhood friend Dennis Rigdon said Juarez was a natural athlete as a teen and loved riding bikes and playing football.

The hardest thing for Rigdon was seeing how limited Juarez’s life had become, considering he had been such an active and adventurous kid.

“He was homeless by choice, for the most part,” Rigdon said. “He just wanted to be left alone. He wanted to live where he was at.”

In the 2-square-mile city of Lawndale, Juarez was one of 32 unsheltered homeless people counted this year during an annual tally. Homelessness spiked 23 percent in Los Angeles County since last year, the study said.


Information from: Daily Breeze, http://www.dailybreeze.com

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