Gardena friends remember man few knew as homeless

first_imgBy Larry Altman STAFF WRITER Bill Cunha surprised a few people after his death. Few knew that the 62-year-old man who performed odd jobs at the Faith Christian Center in Gardena, and who stopped every day to check on his storage unit, was homeless. In 1977, Cunha was leaning against the door of a four-wheel-drive van. Someone opened the door, causing him to lose his balance and fall. Cunha hit his head on the ground. “He was in a coma for a long time,” said his sister, Sheila Cunha. “He had to learn how to walk and talk. He was like an infant when he came home from the hospital.” Cunha went back to his construction job, but his difficulties began about 10 years after the accident. He suffered epileptic seizures. “You couldn’t understand how he talked,” his sister said. “It was hard for him to communicate after the seizures.” He continued to live with his mother until 1996, when she required special treatment for her emphysema and subsequently died. His sister said that’s when he went downhill. During the past 10 years, he lived in a room at a trailer park, in a room behind a dentist’s office, and in a room at the Gardena Valley News, where he delivered papers and performed other little tasks. He worked his own gardening business and performed odd jobs. “He functioned well and he did his best with his circumstances,” said longtime friend Rosalie Schjeldahl. “He stayed stable as long as he could.” Schjeldahl, who dated Cunha in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and her husband used to take food to him. Ultimately, Cunha ended up living in his blue pickup. He parked during the day in Alondra Park and near the church at night. Every day, Cunha ate breakfast at Albertita’s Mexican Food in Gardena, and checked on his belongings stored at Extra Space Storage, placing the morning newspaper in front of manager Tony McClendon’s office. “He loved to talk and had so much information,” McClendon said. “He would give me ideas on how to cook, how to survive out there. In his passing, I honestly did not know Bill was homeless.” McClendon said Cunha was part of his “Extra Space family.” Cunha arrived every day like clockwork, bringing recyclables to his second-floor unit, which he kept organized and clean. He swept the hallway in front of it. “He would tell me about this Alondra Park,” McClendon said. “I never met anyone who was so knowledgeable about every inch of that park. He would talk about where he’s been and things that he’s done and people he’s dealt with. He was an all-around nice, cheerful guy.” Cunha’s 5-foot-by-10-foot unit was filled with boxes containing clippings torn from the Daily Breeze. He read the newspaper from cover to cover every day, and was interested in a variety of topics, including gardening, medical marijuana and military activities. Among the articles was a 2002 story about his sister, Pamela Cunha, whose body was found in the Dominguez Channel in Carson. Pamela Cunha, 47, who lived with friends, suffered from manic depression, alcoholism and drug abuse. Her death was never solved. Over the last few years, Cunha spent his days watching over Purnell’s preschool, keeping transients away. He worked in the church’s garden, keeping the flower beds free of weeds. Teacher’s aide Linda Montes called him a “a real good friend.” “He just seemed like such a really nice person that was really respectable,” Montes said. “He was just like a part of Gardena. You just knew who Bill was. He always waved his hand from afar. If you were way across the street, he still had that arm waving.” Everyone knew something was wrong Aug. 12, when Cunha failed to show up at the school and storage facility. McClendon noticed his newspaper was not outside his door. Cunha was collecting cans at 6:45 a.m. when another motorist traveling at about 80 mph blew through a red light at Broadway and Alondra Boulevard in Carson. The driver plowed into Cunha’s blue truck. It burst into flames, killing Cunha, sheriff’s deputy Jon Tedder said. The other motorist ran, leaving behind his car and dropping his cellular telephone on the ground. The evidence made it easy for detectives to investigate the case. They identified the driver, but have not arrested him as they continue to build their case. Word spread quickly about Cunha’s death. Schjeldahl organized the memorial service and is expecting a large crowd. Sheila Cunha, who had urged her brother to come to Bakersfield to live, said the response has been awesome. She had no idea how many people knew her brother. “I’ve gotten so many phone calls,” she said. “He made an impact on that town.” [email protected] 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! He lived in his blue pickup truck, driving around the Gardena area, parking and sleeping in Alondra Park and its surrounding neighborhoods. “He showed no signs of being homeless. I had no idea,” said Kim Purnell, administrator at the church school. “I was shocked. He did so much for so many people. It never showed.” Today, friends will gather under a big tree in the park to remember Cunha, who died Aug. 12 when a hit-and-run driver slammed into his truck, setting it ablaze. “He was my friend,” Purnell said. “I am going to pay my respects. I have to be there.” Cunha grew up in Gardena, graduating from Gardena High School in 1964. He served in the U.S. Army, worked construction and helped his mother raise his three sisters after his father died. last_img read more