The flash of insight came to Brenda Clark when she heard the clangorous tune of an ice cream truck’s music box. She had no money to buy her four children treats; she had spent it on cocaine.
“That hurt,” she recalled. But it didn’t hurt enough--not enough to make her stop using cocaine. Not until she had turned her children over to her mother and spent 10 months living on the streets did Clark enter a rehabilitation program. She has been off cocaine now for three months, she says.
Clark, 34, may seem an unlikely role model, but she is just the sort of person a new program is counting on to help some of Los Angeles’ more than 30,000 homeless residents. Fanning through streets and alleys downtown, former homeless people will try to help their compatriots in a six-month pilot program that begins Monday.
The Homeless Outreach Program, the brainchild of Mike Neely, a Skid Row activist and recovering drug addict, is funded by a $62,000 Community Redevelopment Agency grant. It aims to guide people through the maze of social service programs and ultimately send them back into society.
“We can’t give up--this is our community,” said Neely, who is also the program’s executive director. “This is all we got.”
Wherever and whenever homeless people gather--queuing for jobs before dawn or lining up outside of shelters late at night--Neely and his crew of four will offer referrals for food, medical aid, drug counseling and job training. There are more than 30 programs in Los Angeles to help the homeless, Neely said, but many of the homeless don’t know about them.
And the need for such information has never been greater. While no one knows how many homeless people live on the street, Michael Dear, a professor at USC who is serving as a consultant to the program, said that the numbers are increasing dramatically every year.
Saturday, the program began with a dry run. Sporting yellow baseball hats emblazoned with HOP, Neely’s small group strolled down the block from the program’s storefront office on 6th Street and Ceres Avenue. They didn’t have to go far; men and women sat in doorways, on curbs and against walls throughout the area.
Steven Wiley, homeless for two years, is wrestling with addiction. Unlike others who steal to finance their habits, Wiley says he earns money to buy rock cocaine.
“I don’t consider myself a bum,” he said.
Clark, who lives in a half-way house, told him about her own turning point.
“I didn’t want to smoke no more,” she said. “I wanted my children back, my babies.”
And she tried to encourage him to enter a treatment program, telling of her own success battling addiction. “It’s over,” she said.
Wiley, who hasn’t seen his own son for three years, shrugged.
“I’ve been smoking (crack) for five years and I’m tired of it,” the bearded 32-year-old said. “But you can’t stop.”