George Murray almost died on a couch in his self-made shelter late last year.
Some city officials and residents wanted Murray evicted from his makeshift house on Garfield Avenue in Glendale. The homeless 63-year-old wanted shelter while he attended barber school, which he started this past February.
Murray befriended some construction workers who offered to move the shelter for him. The day they brought a forklift to take it, Murray was inside — asleep on his couch.
The machine’s forks crashed through the cardboard wall, pushing the couch against a fence.
“I’m throwing rocks at the thing to get him to stop,” he said.
“The workers were like ‘you’re lucky you’re alive.’ If he kept going, I wouldn’t be here,” Murray said. “And I got the couch out.”
In April, Murray moved into a small apartment in the Tropico neighborhood of Glendale after being homeless for two and a half years. Murray is expected to graduate in October from Abram Friedman Occupational Center’s barber school. For most of the time while he’s been studying, Murray was homeless and recovering from a heroin addiction.
His housing was provided through the Continuum of Care rental assistance program, funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It places homeless people into subsidized housing and covers 70% of the client’s rent.
Murray is no longer one of the 260 people living on Glendale’s streets — a 55% increase in the city’s homeless population compared to last year, according to an annual homeless report by the city.
Last year, more than two-thirds of Los Angeles County voters approved Measure H, which funds programs to combat homelessness. This year, Glendale will generate about $10 million in sales-tax revenue, said city spokesman Tom Lorenz.
The city receives $395,000 a year for its homeless initiatives — $280,000 of direct funding from Measure H, $100,000 from L.A. County Workforce Development and $15,000 from another L.A. County program to buy furniture for people transitioning from homeless to housing.
Glendale Police homeless liaison officer Steve Koszis was initially sent to evict Murray from his shelter, but became a key ally in getting Murray his apartment.
“Not a lot of the clients I run into are willing to participate in the program as George has been,” Koszis said. “He made it up in his own mind and heart to bring himself out of homelessness. He viewed it as a temporary situation, not a permanent lifestyle.”
Before Murray could find housing, he decided to build his own — but first he had to save himself.
On May 9, 2010, Murray relapsed with his addiction. He had succumbed to the pressure of juggling his personal life with being a house manager for Sober College, a drug and alcohol treatment center for young adults.
He succeeded at managing the facility’s Maple Street house but the demands of his profession while getting his personal life together overwhelmed him.
“I figured that because I was in my 50s, I could make adult decisions. I had no experience with that,” Murray said. “My sponsor told me I was running my own program, and he was right.”
He added, “Addicts have a hard time living life on life’s terms. When I feel bad, I know how to change my feelings.”
Murray left behind his job and the 14 young adults he supervised for a weekend binge.
“When I came back Sunday afternoon, I was dopesick like the old days,” Murray said.
For six years, Murray’s addiction made him burn through his money and relationships. When his entire life was minimized to a backpack and duffel bag, Murray decided to turn his life around.
“It’s hard to get on your feet [even] without the addiction,” Murray said. “To come out of homelessness is a really difficult process. Really hard.”
Murray didn’t know anything about construction, so he studied YouTube videos. With little money, Murray couldn’t afford tools or materials, so he got creative.
“You know how underneath mattresses they have, instead of boxsprings, they have those frames? I realized those can be walls,” Murray said.
Murray grabbed all of the bed frames, cardboard and wood he could carry back to Garfield Avenue and began building. The couch was given to him by an acquaintance.
By December, he had made his “cardboard-minimum” and built his shelter in front of a fence with tape, paint and desperation.
“It took about a week. It was a slap-up job,” Murray said.
Koszis went to the makeshift shelter to evict Murray, but realized he could instead help him.
“All I had to do was be an accessory to help him. I just connected him to additional resources,” Koszis said.
“[Murray] told me, ‘I’m not going to be out here forever.’ He was going to barber school. He had a goal to be a licensed barber. That makes it easy for a guy like me,” Koszis said.
Murray enrolled in Abram Friedman, with his barbering tools and tuition paid for by the Department of Rehabilitation.
Koszis introduced Murray to Ivet Samvelyan, Glendale’s community services manager. Samvelyan oversees the Continuum of Care housing program that got Murray an apartment.
“It really takes true partnership to end homelessness,” she said. “If they’re ready, I don’t give up on them. I have to tell you it takes an entire village to coordinate services.”
Murray regularly sends notes of appreciation to Samvelyan.
“He’s the highlight of my day, honestly,” she said.
With his life back on track, Murray anxiously awaits going back to barber school after its summer break. He spends his two months off from school by learning new hobbies and helping a friend who is a quadriplegic Murray has known since 1965. He has a hard time feeding and bathing himself, so Murray helps him.
Murray cooks for him. He buys him new clothes when his are worn out. Murray said he can’t leave his friend behind because there is a sense of guilt inside him.
“The weirdest thing about getting a place is I feel guilty around my friends who are homeless,” Murray said. “I feel like I left people behind. Now, I’m afraid of what they are going to think. If I tell them I got a place, [it’s] like I’m rubbing their nose in it.”