The rocky path from skid row to redemption

Los Angeles Times

From the day they pulled him off the pavement, Paul Sigler, a haunted-looking man with striking pale blue eyes, presented a mystery to Carrie Bach's team. He wasn't like the rest of the skid row crowd, he insisted.

"I used to be a millionaire," he muttered. "I fell off the Empire State Building. They just fell off the curb."

Bach, director of Los Angeles County's effort to shelter skid row's 50 most vulnerable homeless, knew that facades were deceptive in a population of wily hustlers and mentally ill dope fiends. One man swore he was the son of an African dictator. Others cultivated a menacing street persona they could switch on and off. Some had used fake names for years. Disguise was survival out here, Bach figured, and she felt lucky if people lifted their masks just enough for a fragmentary glimpse of the faces underneath.

He told a story wilder than most, the man with the Paul Newman eyes in a dead face. Sigler said he grew up in San Marino, one of Southern California's richest cities, studied business and made a fortune in the advertising-sign business. He had hundreds of sign-walkers on the payroll and deals coast to coast; by the late 1990s he had made his first million. Before crack cocaine plunged him onto skid row, he had huge houses, a limo, an entourage dining on filet mignon at his Staples Center luxury suite.

Sigler, in his mid-40s, had a thick build and graying blond hair. One of skid row's few white men, he was a constant target, but his training as a high school and college wrestler gave him an edge: He dived for the legs of street fighters who expected a boxing match.

Bach knew that some Project 50 staffers regarded the lost riches story as the fantasy of a bipolar drug addict with a streak of grandiosity, a man desperate to distance himself from the dead-end cases around him. "Most of it is delusional -- I'd stake my life on it," said Lori Schwartz, one of the drug counselors.

Bach couldn't be sure. Sometimes she thought she heard the echo of preppy breeding in Sigler's voice. "Why shouldn't we believe him?" she asked.

The combination of drugs, manic depression and a brush with cancer had landed him in Project 50. It seemed clear that Sigler had had some kind of normal life before reaching the pavement. This set him apart him from many other participants in the program, addicts since their teens with limited vision of existence beyond the streets.

For a social scourge that seemed intractable, Project 50 had an ambitious answer: Give the chronically homeless four walls, a bed and all the help they'd take, while scuttling such traditional demands as 12-step programs and psychiatric counseling.

Success in the program was a slippery concept, eluding standard measurements. For the worst-off clients, the logic was brutally practical: Shooting heroin in an apartment was better than doing it on the streets; withering from illness indoors was better than dying on a sidewalk. By Bach's reckoning, just keeping a roof over their heads -- a place where doctors and counselors could find them -- justified the program's existence.

But Project 50 also had men like Sigler and Maurice Lewis, a former merchant marine who lived down the hall from him: a high-functioning few whose downward spiral might have been arrested just in time. They knew enough of the world beyond skid row -- maybe -- to fight their way back. For them, Bach thought, tiny rooms in a refurbished flophouse might be the cradle of miracles.

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On the streets, veteran hustlers regarded Sigler as a mark, someone whose self-esteem vanished when he drank and who could be wheedled out of cash and dope.

At the Senator Hotel, his best friend was a wheelchair-bound, brain-damaged man, Mohammed Duala, and at night Sigler lifted his body out of his wheelchair and tucked him gently into bed. "He wants to die," Sigler said. "He'll sit there and say, 'I got no chance anymore. I can't talk, bro.'"

Sigler understood the impulse. Around the holidays especially, the desire to kill himself was strong.

A clear, sober head made him dwell on his lost life. Having endured years of his drug use, his wife left with their three children in 2003. He would stand in the kids' rooms, smelling their clothes and crying. Soon he was in a skid row tent, which he rented out to other addicts for $5 or a taste of drugs.

"The hardest thing is, I'm in so much pain," he said. "I so, so, just -- oh, my God, I feel so guilty. It's been a dirty five years."

A Project 50 doctor prescribed pills for his mental illness, and when Sigler's depression lifted a little, the hard-charging salesman came roaring out. By summer 2008, after a few months in a room, he was putting plans into play, drumming up moneymaking schemes, trying to do a hundred things at once. He vowed he would see his kids again, but not as a bum or an addict. He would be special once more -- he would make a bid for everything he lost.

Much of his story, it turned out, could be confirmed. San Marino High School kept copies of its yearbooks, and there was Sigler in his Class of 1982 senior photo, handsome in a tie and blue blazer. In another photo, he posed with the varsity wrestling squad, his upper half ripped like an Olympian's. A third showed him smiling above the title that classmates had bestowed: Best Eyes.

A call to one of Sigler's childhood friends, Joseph Longo, a Beverly Hills attorney, confirmed other details of his story. Longo was present during Sigler's years as a high-flying businessman, he said, and vividly remembered the trappings of his wealth: the Mercedes-Benz, the limo, big houses in Glendale and Newport Beach, the Staples Center suite where he entertained friends and courted clients.

Sigler was at the center of the whirlwind, the man everyone wanted to get next to, a generous spender who thought nothing of giving $500 to a friend or leaving a 75% tip on a pricey meal just to see the look on a waiter's face. "Anybody who knew him then would never imagine how he's living now," Longo said.

Another friend, Ed Kellogg, said he was Sigler's fraternity brother at the University of La Verne in the mid-1980s and remembered the fast times that followed. "He was larger than life, a very successful guy," Kellogg said. "I think it's harder for Paul to have achieved that success and lose it than never to have had it at all."

Bach was not surprised to hear this. She glimpsed Sigler on the streets all the time, looking restless and anxious, a cellphone to his ear, trying to make some deal above the din of traffic. Bach was impressed by his kind side -- he cared for his wheelchair-bound friend in a way few others would.

Sigler was lucky: He had friends from his old life who wanted to help. One of them, Phil Pisano, managed a full-contact fighter who was training for his pro debut. He offered Sigler the vague, unpaid role of "co-manager." Sigler jumped at the chance, instantly dreaming big, saying he wanted to manage 25 fighters. Pisano had to slow him down: One at a time, Paul.

Ringside at an Irvine gym, Sigler watched as the fighter landed hard kicks and punches on his sparring partner. "This is better than smokin' that pipe," Sigler said.

While he waited for the fight to be lined up, Sigler landed an account to provide advertising signs to a tax-refund place in Costa Mesa, and suddenly his blue eyes blazed with ambition. "I'm on fire," he said. "In about six months, I'll have 100 deals a weekend -- if I stay clean and sober."

On top of that, friends hooked him up with a job, on commission, selling security systems. His zeal for the product seemed thin, his grasp of the figures foggy, but he marched door-to-door downtown, dressed in a button-down shirt and dress slacks. One afternoon he took the elevator to the eighth floor of a Spring Street building.

"So, can we do business?" Sigler asked a building manager he'd been pestering.

"I don't know your company," said the manager, Alfred Padilla. "I don't know the quality of your service."

"I'm saving you a couple dollars. I'm not bothering you that much. I've been patient."

"What's your response time?"

"Same day. Within hours. Bottom line."

The manager was unsold. Happy with his current service.

The elevator plunged a disconsolate Sigler to the stately lobby. Back on the sidewalk, he waved his hand vaguely. "I've got bids on every building here," he said.

At a group drug-counseling session in late summer, Sigler lamented the loss of his wealth. The other addicts had listened to him talk this way for months, and one asked: "Paul, besides money, does anything else motivate you?"

"Love," he said.

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One day in November 2008, Sigler had a request: With his fighter's debut coming up, could Bach spring for tickets so his Project 50 buddies could attend? A promise of old times: Sigler the ringmaster, bringing his entourage a taste of the fast life. There was no budget for that, Bach said.

At the bout in Irvine, Sigler's fighter quickly finished his rival with a flurry of elbows and hammer-fists. Sigler pumped his fist in victory, soaking up the crowd's roars. "I'm stoked," Sigler said. "He's a star."

There was talk of another fight in a few months, this time in Las Vegas, where Sigler's ex-wife and children were living. Sigler imagined a triumphant reunion with his kids.

"Today is a good day. It makes my self-esteem just a little bit better," Sigler said. "This brings me that much closer to my kids. When I go to Vegas, I'll be a winner instead of a loser."

Drug counselor Don Hashima found it a good sign that Sigler still possessed his cellphone -- he hadn't sold it for crack -- but he worried about Sigler drinking and cautioned him not to mistake money for a magic fix.

"He's always getting these jobs: [security] cameras, boxing. What's next?" Hashima asked. "It's like a Band-Aid on a big wound. He thinks that power and prestige will keep him clean and sober.... I keep telling him, 'If that career path worked for you before, you wouldn't be here.'"

Soon, Sigler got word that his fighter's next bout had been canceled. No Vegas for now.

One day that winter, sitting over a burrito in a skid row diner, Sigler lifted his cap to reveal a nasty scar on his scalp. He said he'd been robbed and attacked with a hammer.

Other residents of the Senator snickered; they said Sigler was in a drunken argument when it happened. Sigler said he thought maybe the hammer to the head was a sign, God's way of telling him to quit partying. His speech was slurred, his marquee-idol eyes turbid and unfocused. He drooled. "I'm slow," he said. "I'm not the same."

The attack had left him mostly room-bound at the Senator. He couldn't work. He couldn't make any money. He couldn't find his way back to the center of all that love.

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How far any client might progress, ultimately, was one of the program's abiding uncertainties, and Bach had learned neither to celebrate too early nor to prejudge anyone's limits.

When Maurice Lewis came off the streets, looking a decade older than his 54 years, he'd vowed to work the great boats again as a merchant marine.

Bach wasn't sure what to make of him. Sometimes she wondered whether he even belonged in Project 50.

Lewis had sensed his opportunity when he heard they were giving out rooms. "You got to be blind, crippled or have AIDS in order to qualify for skid row housing," he said. "The only thing you can say is, 'I hear voices.'"

The claim got him an apartment in the Senator. He just smiled when Bach asked him gently if maybe he wasn't telling the whole truth.

She accompanied him to court when, weeks after he got his room, he picked up a misdemeanor domestic violence charge for a fight with a girlfriend. The judge agreed to let him perform his community service at Project 50, and he became a fixture at the program's office in the early days, brewing coffee and doing other odd jobs.

In December 2008, about a year off the streets, Lewis was waving a piece of paper that had just arrived in the mail. He'd been accepted into a vocational training program that would help him reclaim his Ablebodied Seaman license, six years expired.

More than anyone, he wanted to show Hashima, Project 50's drug counselor, who, time after time, calmed Lewis down when he cursed and raged at his plight.

"Read the thing!" Lewis said. "You had a lot to do with that."

"Persistence and tolerance, man. That's called the footwork," Hashima said, examining the paper. "You're on your way, man."

They bumped fists.

Lewis remembered his years on the water: spreading out a pile of cash on his bunk on payday, Egyptian women with their "hypnotic eyes," the gigantic waves, and the chill of a place like Portland, Maine, so cold his eyes watered and icicles filled his nostrils.

"There's power on the water," he said. "I feel calm and peaceful and serene. I'm a different person."

How his life had unraveled was vague -- he liked to blame it on a girlfriend who had betrayed him -- though maybe his acknowledged "drinkin' and druggin'" were all the explanation anyone needed.

When he got that license, Lewis said, he would leave skid row for good and "work till I can't no more."

Soon after he received the acceptance letter, he was panting across a big indoor pool at El Camino College in Torrance -- the last stretch of a 40-hour personal survival class. He was the oldest of the students and a heavy smoker, and the exercises -- scrambling for lifejackets, lunging at a buoy, righting a life raft -- left him gasping. "I'm about to bust, damn near," he said. "I ain't done this in six years."

The crowning test: treading water unaided for a full minute. Despite his years on boats, he'd never learned to swim, and now his head bobbed just above the water, threatening to go under. Ten seconds ticked away. Twenty. Thirty. Water spilled into his mouth. He spit. He looked panicked. Forty, fifty … sixty. His classmates cheered. He climbed out heaving. "That was a monster for me, man," he said, limping away triumphantly. "I'm on my way now." He swore he would have drowned before quitting.

Later, he failed a written quiz of his maritime knowledge. He knew his knots cold, but drew a blank on identifying buoys. "I'm trying to keep my composure," he said, his big shoulders clenched. Some years back, he said, he wouldn't have known what to do with the anger. He would have broken something. Instead, he'd try to be patient. Buy flashcards. Focus on the next test. Remind himself that he was on the streets a year ago. "I ain't gonna give up," he said.

By Project 50's special arithmetic, clients like Lewis could be counted as victories just for keeping their apartments. Bach understood that the outcome of these dramas, good or bad or in between, would play out long after she was gone.

A year into the program, in December 2008, Bach was visibly depleted, a box of kava kava tablets on her desk bespeaking months of insomnia. The job had been all-consuming, inconceivably hard. She had put off vacation and delayed surgery on her arthritic foot most of the year, pushing through the pain until the days ended with her limping.

Even after a podiatrist put a screw in her toe and recommended six weeks off her feet, she was back at work in a couple of days, hobbling on crutches past the hookers and the junkies and the hustlers, the first to arrive at the Main Street office, bending to unlock the gate.

Exhaustion accounted for only part of the project's toll on her. Her cheerful, purposeful demeanor had acquired a wariness. In a matter of weeks, with little explanation to clients who had come to regard her as the soul of the program, her desk would be empty.

christopher.goffard@latimes.com

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