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First-Person Stories of Homelessness

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jess Ponce Jr. had never told anyone how his life had begun to change one year, 10 months, 10 days and 12 hours earlier when his 20-year-old girlfriend “traded up for something better.”

Maureen Thompkins had kept inside how she became homeless for the first time when she ran away after her aunt beat her with an extension cord for refusing to eat pigs feet. Leighton Banks had chased for more than 20 years the high he felt in a jam session with Stevie Wonder and Tito Puente at his parents’ home.

Such were the turning points for the electrician and a mother turned panhandlers and a musician who became an addict. Each fell into the ranks of the Pasadena homeless and are dramatizing their high times and hard-luck stories in front of audiences in Old Pasadena’s One Colorado courtyard.

They, along with eight others who have lived at the Union Station homeless shelter in Pasadena, have written a script based on their experiences. They hope that “Face to Face: Stories From the Street and Back” gives a voice to the nameless.

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One Colorado management wanted to bring people face to face with the social service organizations in Pasadena, said Kate Strauss, marketing coordinator for the real estate company that owns the property. So every other month on weekends, a different nonprofit agency displays its services in the square, on Pasadena Boulevard between Fair Oaks and Raymond avenues, surrounded by upscale shops, restaurants and a movie theater complex. The free, 45-minute play runs at 7 and 8 p.m. on Saturdays throughout October.

Thompkins most recently became homeless when she fled an abusive relationship six months ago. She came to the Los Angeles area 22 years ago as a payroll clerk. Since then she has been through three husbands, including the father of her sons Jonathan and Maurice Simms, who are also in the play.

She began her descent into street life the day she ran away from her aunt’s whipping, she said. She kept the spiral turning downward by drinking herself out of jobs and relationships.

Thompkins plans to move later this month into low-income housing, for which she recently received approval.

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Jonathan, 16, and Maurice, 14, said they spent the summer with their mother in the homeless shelter because they love her and know she is preparing to take care of them once again. The boys have returned to their father’s home in Downey, where they have been living while their mother completes her rehabilitation at Union Station.

“At first, when my friends found out I was going to be in this, they were like, ‘Aw, man, your mom is homeless? What’s up with that?’ ” said Maurice, who as his rap alter-ego “Nonsense” in the play calls for a better understanding of what can cause homelessness.

The youths said that four months at Union Station has provided a different perspective of homelessness.

“Staying [at Union Station] showed us how people’s lives can change in a day,” Jonathan said. “Your life could change today, and you’d be homeless. People don’t know what it’s like to be in my mom’s shoes until they know where homeless people come from.”

Cameron Jolly was one of about 200 people watching the premiere performance of “Face to Face.” The story lines, he said, sound very close to the ones he hears as a jailer at an East Los Angeles juvenile detention center.

“It could be criminals, gangs, homeless people,” Jolly said. “The story is the same: ‘Bad family life and drugs messed me up.’ I’m glad to see them telling it, though. One thing I’ve learned is if they don’t tell it, we’ll be back 15 years later listening to their children tell the same story.”

Understanding what can lead to homelessness can help others avoid it, said Alvin Abrazaldo, who tells his story in the play.

Abrazaldo, 26, said he began drinking and smoking crack cocaine five months ago, when his marriage had troubles. Abrazaldo figured he could be 10 times as wild.

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Three months later, his $500-a-day habit cost him his home and his job.

He arrived at practice Thursday in the khaki pants, blue oxford shirt and a tie he wore to his waiter job earlier at the Cheesecake Factory across Colorado Boulevard from the courtyard.

Two of his co-workers did a double take when they saw Abrazaldo with a script. They didn’t know a family breakup had shoved him over the edge.

“You? Man, you’re homeless?” one of his co-workers asked. “Yeah, I am,” Abrazaldo said. “It takes a lot of humility because I didn’t have to end up homeless. My family had a little [money], you know.”

Although he is working, Abrazaldo remains at Union Station to finish his drug rehabilitation.

Two months of gearing up for “Face to Face” has taken Kym Grossman into the lives of shelter residents and “alumni” she never saw as director of development and chief fund-raiser for the Union Station Foundation. The 26-year-old institution serves 110,000 meals and provides temporary housing for about 50 of Pasadena’s 1,000 homeless each night.

Grossman’s eyes misted up as she summarized the saga of “Face to Face” performer Rachelle Simms-Mylers, who once sold her mother’s furniture for drug money. The former truck driver turned to Union Station when she got kicked out of a drug rehabilitation program. A “graduate” of Union Station since 1991, Simms-Mylers is a community liaison for Pasadena’s Black Infant Health Program.

“Look at that--I can’t stop it,” Grossman said, pointing to goose pimples beginning to rise on her arm as she told of Simms-Mylers’ new life of stability and hope.

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Each day the actors ad-lib more engaging material into the play as they become more comfortable airing their lives.

As scripted at the beginning of Thursday night’s practice, Ponce explained how the pain of his girlfriend leaving him drove him to drink, which led to cocaine use. In the next walk-through, he is ready to explain that he thought their love was heaven-sent because they met in a bar in Mexico and discovered they lived blocks from each other in Los Angeles.

His cocaine use from 1997 to 1998 cost him his job as an electrician, his home and four pieces of rental property. On Aug. 4 he walked into Union Station looking for a hot meal.

“When they started telling their stories, I just wanted the whole crowd to go away,” said Beverly Redman, “Face to Face” director. “This is very private stuff.”

But Redman assembled a script from recorded storytelling sessions and journal entries. The final version, she said, has been changed very little from the players’ first accounts.

So there is Banks, a bear of a man, remembering the impromptu jam session when he was 14. He followed his dream and became a musician. That life began to deteriorate after the death of his wife and child, when he turned to drugs and alcohol.

Like the others, Banks blames his addiction to drugs and alcohol for costing him his job and his home. In 1995, he entered Union Station, looking for a bed to spend the night. He ended up enrolling in the drug rehabilitation program. Now he lives with his new wife in their home.

As she watched Saturday’s performance, Michelle Trudeau compared the performance to the Jerry Springer show. “Face to Face,” though, has a more compelling message, she said.

“I’ve walked by homeless people on the street,” Trudeau said. “Who hasn’t? But it does move me to hear these people tell what happened to them and then turn around and say they have changed their lives for the better. They need to make a TV show.”


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