By Ivan Delgado
Everyone in the city of Coachella seems to know Ronald Lerma, a homeless man who spends his days around Avenue 52 and Harrison Street. Ronnie, as he is known, is the mysterious subject of children’s gossip and multiple theories about what may have caused his homelessness.
Everyone knows who he is yet nobody knows him. I am one of these people.
Lerma can be seen every day, rain or shine, roaming the streets in women’s clothing – usually a large top and very short shorts. He looks exhausted, nervous, and scruffy. Lerma is known not only for his appearance, but his cunning ability to ask gas station customers like me for spare change, with much success.
In the beginning, I did not know whether to be amused by or have pity for Lerma. I didn’t know whether to look down on him for his lifestyle or applaud his efforts for being comfortable enough to wear whatever he wants. I felt sad and confused for this man who looked as though he had been to hell and back.
Then it hit me. As I journalist, I should get to know him and share his story. I decided to let people know the man we all judge has a story, too.
I decided to wait for Lerma by the shady tree, where he can often be seen hiding from the sun, to ask him some questions about his life. I soon realized how hard it is to find Lerma when you are actually looking for him.
I went to all of the spots where I had seen him before. One day passed, then a second and a third, until I finally caught a glimpse of a skinny man in tattered clothing and a scruffy beard walking across Harrison Street from AM/PM. It was Lerma.
I quickly got my equipment and began to follow him. Lerma crossed the street and headed behind the Fast-Strip gas station on Harrison Street. It occurred to me that Lerma must be very athletic. When I caught up with him as he turned a corner, it seemed as if he vaporized and reappeared down the street.
I finally caught up with him as he turned onto Calle Empalme from Avenue 52, but he disappeared again.
A woman sweeping the front steps of her home looked at me. I asked her if she had seen Lerma walk by, but she said she had not seen a thing so I left.
A few hours later, I returned to that same street in hopes of seeing Lerma again. A man outside his home waved his hands, as if to call me over. My curiosity got the best of me, and I walked over to him.
“Are you looking for somebody?” he asked. I told him about my search for Lerma.
“The man you’re looking for lives in the desert next door,” he said. “If you wait long enough, you might catch him.”
I walked away so nervous from that encounter, that I almost did not hear the man calling me back to his house. I turned around and saw Lerma walk by this man’s house.
“I’m sorry, he was just scared. He thinks you’re going to do something to him,” said the homeowner.
I was so caught up trying to catch up to Lerma that I did not realize how suspicious I must have looked to him.
There are many theories as to why Lerma is now homeless. Some say he suffers from mental illness. Others say Lerma experimented with drugs at a young age and failed to kick the habit, leading to his current living situation.
“Drugs have changed his mentality, and the way he sees the world,” said a neighbor.
Lerma has not always lived like this. When I was finally able to meet with him, I was able to see the patch of desert he calls home. Scattered throughout his “home” are bags of old clothing that have been dumped in this desert. Shirts and shorts dangle from the bushes that surround his living quarters. Most of these are either women’s or children’s clothing. Unless he wants to walk the streets bare, Lerma has little choice but to wear what he has.
“Yes, I have lived here all of my life,” said Lerma. “I went to Coachella Valley High School.”
He told me he grew up just down the street from his patch of desert, in a brown colored house with a black metal fence. He allowed me to spend some time with him, but he said he could not answer any questions. He didn’t want to be photographed, but I was able to take some shots of where he sleeps.
I finally understood why it was so hard to keep up with him on the streets of Coachella.
Gil Contreras, Coachella Valley High School’s cross country coach, went to high school with Lerma. According to Contreras, Lerma was on the cross country team with him and earned a handful of medals during that time.
Some of his neighbors have known Lerma his entire life and remember a time when he seemed destined for great things. They recall he did well in school.
“Ronny was smart and athletic,” said the same woman who had been sweeping dirt in front of her home.
Lerma is seen as a bizarre person because he walks the streets of Coachella in shorts so short that people sometimes assume he is not wearing pants. Stories about him have spread like wildfire in the community. But when spoken to, I found he responds in a normal tone and is very polite. He looks you in the eye and says thank you for any offerings he is received. Unfortunately, I did not get to know Lerma as well as I would have liked, but I learned he is a good person with a story worth sharing.
He spends his days roaming the streets and sleeps in the desert, but Lerma is a resident of Coachella – just like me — and he has been for over 40 years.
Editor’s note: Ronald Lerma allowed reporter Ivan Delgado to spend time with him but declined to be photographed or answer specific questions. The neighbors quoted in this story did not wish to be identified.