From addict to advocate
Legal aid lawyer Louis Rafti was leading a group of law students on a tour of skid row when he saw it in the corner of a homeless shelter.
The cot. The very one, he could swear it was, that he had slept on during his last night on the row a few years before.
Rafti froze. He didn’t say a word, but a sense of wonder overwhelmed him.
Wonder that he did not have a crack pipe in his hand. Or a needle in his arm. That he had a home, a job, a life.
These days, Rafti is a pugnacious housing rights lawyer for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, known for his take-no-prisoners advocacy on behalf of the poor and disabled.
What many of his clients and colleagues don’t know is that until six years ago, Rafti was a homeless cocaine addict. He contracted HIV from dirty needles. He watched friends die. He would get cleaned up, only to relapse and return to the streets.
Now, at age 49, dressed in sensible shoes and a dark polo shirt, he is back on the streets of skid row -- this time as a lawyer for the kind of person he once was.
He’s as single-minded about helping the down-and-out as he once was about doing drugs with them.
“I am somewhat obsessive-compulsive,” he said. “It’s a drug addict thing.”
This means that he has at times taken on so many cases that colleagues worried he was overextended. But it also means that Los Angeles’ poor have found a passionate new advocate.
Tai Glenn, Legal Aid’s director of housing, said she had no idea of the details of Rafti’s past until she was told of them by a Times reporter. But she said she had noticed his “special insight into our client community.”
“He’s the bravest new lawyer I’ve ever met,” said Glenn, who recently hired Rafti away from another public interest job. “He is Mr. Take Action.”
A slippery slope
Rafti grew up in the San Fernando Valley, just another suburban kid who “liked to party.”
“About the time I became too old for comic books I discovered drugs and alcohol,” he wrote in an essay arguing for admission to the State Bar of California despite his guilty plea in a misdemeanor drug case in 1998. Drugs “provided me with an alternative to the coping skills that I sorely lacked.”
After high school, Rafti attended UCLA. He thought of going to law school, but got drunk the night before the Law School Admission Test and was sick during the exam. Considering that door closed, he found work in finance -- first as a trader’s assistant, then selling securities.
He drank with clients. He drank with colleagues. And he drank with his girlfriend. They went to restaurants, not bars, so her young daughter could come.
Eventually, he was fired.
In 1995, he got a job at Bank of America in San Francisco, a city where he knew no one.
He rented a room at a hotel in the city’s Tenderloin district, where his neighbors were prostitutes and drug addicts. He had debts and needed a cheap place.
He settled into a bizarre existence. By day, he worked in the city’s gleaming financial district. He had to be at his desk by 4 a.m., giving him little chance to meet people.
After work, he drank. One day, he took a wrong turn after leaving a bar. Near a housing project, a man standing on a corner looked him over.
“Hey white boy, what you need?” Rafti recalled the man asking. Rafti said he had just seen the movie “New Jack City,” about the exploits of crack dealers. He asked for a $20 rock.
It was fantastic, he said. Many of his new neighbors in the Tenderloin also used crack and were more than happy to hook him up.
He fell into a routine: work, come home, sleep a few hours, then use crack and later cocaine to brace himself for work.
This went on for almost a year. Realizing that his “life was out of control,” Rafti went into rehab for the first time.
Rafti avoids recounting his family history or in-depth psychological explanations for his behavior.
“I think I have bad proclivities,” he said. “Some people wind up that way. Some people don’t.” After a short stint in rehab, he quit his job to avoid being fired. He moved in with his parents in Los Angeles and started selling auto insurance.
Rafti was putting his life back together, it seemed.
Then he began losing weight. He felt run down. His parents arranged for an appointment with a doctor friend. The doctor summoned him back a few weeks later.
“You have HIV,” the doctor said.
Rafti looked at the doctor. “What do I do?”
“I don’t know,” Rafti recalled the doctor saying. “I specialize in geriatrics. I’m seeing you as a favor to your mother.”
Later he would learn that back in San Francisco, almost everyone he used to hang out with was dying of AIDS -- or had died already.
After leaving the doctor’s office that afternoon in March 1998, he immediately went to buy cocaine. Thus began a three-year cycle of relapse and redemption.
Fed up with his drug problem, Rafti’s parents kicked him out. After bouncing between skid row and rehab centers, he ended up at a program in North Hollywood. There, he learned that as a former drug addict with HIV, he was eligible for state-funded vocational training.
Rafti’s counselor asked him what he wanted to do. He recalled some friends’ advice: Stay away from data entry classes.
“What about law school?” he said. It had been his college dream. And on the streets, he had seen firsthand how people “could have their world destroyed over an administrative error,” he said.
Courtesy of the state, Rafti attended Southwestern University School of Law, where tuition this year topped $33,000.
But life wasn’t all smooth sailing: Weeks before school started, Rafti had a fight with a girlfriend and made his way back to skid row, where he sold his watch and other jewelry to buy drugs.
After a few days, he called a friend for a ride to a detox center.
Since July 11, 2001, he said, he has been clean.
When Rafti graduated from law school in 2004, the state bar told him it was concerned about his moral character.
He responded with an impassioned letter.
“My life illustrates both the despair caused by addiction, but the possibilities of redemption as well,” he wrote. “As part of my commitment to sobriety, I have chosen to dedicate the rest of my days to helping those who face some of the same situations.”
He was admitted to the state bar in June 2006.
Almost immediately, he landed a job at Public Counsel, a pro bono public interest law firm in Los Angeles that annually provides more than $65 million in legal services to low-income people. Rafti told the firm about his drug history, firm officials said.
He had volunteered for the organization’s legal clinic while still in law school and had impressed the lawyers there with his dedication -- and his eccentricity.
Paul Freese, the firm’s interim chief executive, recalled the case of a homeless man who was about to lose his car because of parking tickets.
The man, a former landlord who had lost everything else, was desperate to keep the vehicle. He slept in it and drove it every day to a place where he could shower. It was his last link to his former life.
The lawyers were sympathetic, Freese said, but had to tell the man there was nothing they could do.
Rafti then announced he had a solution, one that he had used when short of cash: Take your car to the County Jail downtown in the middle of the night. Just-sprung prisoners will be desperate for a ride home and will pay well for the service. You’ll have enough money to keep your car in no time.
Freese recalled staring at Rafti with both amusement and alarm.
“In the context of a legal clinic, that’s the sort of advice we simply cannot give,” he said.
Still, Freese said he was impressed with Rafti’s savvy.
Rafti threw himself into work at Public Counsel, signing up a long list of new clients.
He worked to get housing and other benefits restored to clients who’d been denied them. He also filed a class-action lawsuit against Los Angeles’ housing authority, saying it illegally raised poor people’s rent. That case is pending.
Some at the firm worried that he overextended himself.
“He took on a whole bunch of cases . . . and he was getting inundated with demands,” Freese said.
Rafti’s philosophy is that public interest lawyers should help as many people as they can.
As he put it: “You see a person who is drowning, are you going to not throw them a life preserver because you’re late to dinner?” But he acknowledged that he sometimes generated so much work that colleagues, paralegals and clerks chafed at the demands.
In May, Rafti decided to join the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, where he felt he could handle more litigation. Already, with several other nonprofit law firms and a private firm working pro bono, he is suing developers and the Los Angeles redevelopment agency over policies on skid row.
“I feel like I have a debt to pay,” he said on a recent afternoon as he hiked up the hot, musty stairs of a single-room occupancy hotel to see clients who don’t have phones.
“I’ve been given a second chance, not only to make up for the harm I’ve done, but also to have a good time doing it.” Helping others, he noted, is part of the 12-step program that helped him get clean and now governs his life.
In September, he led a group of disabled downtown residents to City Council chambers to protest a development deal sought by a landlord they considered hostile to poor people.
He lost the argument but kept debating even after the gavel had sounded.
His passion for his job has only grown with time. His girlfriend, Jackie Bulczak, noted that he gives his personal cellphone number to all his clients -- and answers no matter when it rings.
“Louis works too hard, to the point where I worry about him,” she said. At the same time, she knows that his job “keeps him going.”
Sitting next to her, Rafti looked both impatient and chagrined. His health is holding for now, he said, although some days are worse than others. He has defied medical convention, casting aside anti-AIDS drugs a few years ago because he said they made him sick. Instead, he eats healthful food and takes nutrition supplements.
When he isn’t working, Rafti devotes himself to Bulczak and members of his unorthodox household.
Bulczak is an AIDS activist from the Midwest. She contracted HIV from a transfusion more than two decades ago, and her health is in decline. She met Rafti in Washington, D.C., about seven years ago, when both were pushing for greater AIDS funding. Now he takes care of her.
She lives in the apartment next door. If they lived together, she could lose her federal housing subsidy.
Rafti shares his apartment with Carrie Prado, the daughter of Rafti’s ex-girlfriend and former bar companion, the daughter’s boyfriend and a baby. Also there is Koko the cat, who used to belong to Rafti’s mother.
On a recent evening, Bulczak and Rafti’s housemates sat around his eclectically furnished living room, talking.
“We look at life in a different way,” Bulczak said of Rafti and herself. “It’s living with knowing you have a death sentence.”
Rafti sighed, as if the comment made him sad.
“I think it’s a good thing,” he said. “Every day could be your last. Why worry?”