The challenge of charity


There was a stark divide among readers this week in response to my Tuesday column about a homeless family — father, mother and 12-year-old son — who spend every day appealing for help along a busy Century City boulevard.

Renzell, Kimberly and Kobe Givens were evicted last year from their apartment after Renzell lost his job. After months cycling through public shelter programs, the family donned signs advertising their plight and began collecting enough donations to afford a cheap motel room each night.

Many readers challenged their approach, considering it short-sighted at best, and shameful at worst.


“No mention of them looking for a job, being decent parents and making sure their son is in school, helping themselves in any way,” wrote a Crenshaw-area resident. “Just handouts, and which neighborhood has better handouts!!!”

Another reader, an accountant living in his van since he lost his job six months ago, said the parents ought to be job-hunting instead of “pimping their young son to attract pity.”

But others, moved by the family’s plight, emailed offers of money and shelter.

A San Fernando Valley woman invited the family to share her home, in a quiet neighborhood not far from Kobe’s school. “I always feel a twinge of guilt when somebody needs a place to sleep,” she said. “I have room in my house; I’ve been blessed. It sounds like this is a family that just wants a helping hand.”

An apartment owner in Long Beach offered a vacant unit — a “clean, cozy studio” that goes for $675 a month — to the family for three months, rent free. “We are not interested in enabling anyone,” he wrote. “We are only seeking to help the Givens have a fighting chance to get on their feet.”

But the Givens, it turns out, don’t seem to want a helping hand or a fighting chance.

Kimberly, speaking for the family, turned down both offers. Too little privacy, too far to drive, too many complications, she said.

They seem to have given up, as well, on public shelters and nonprofit programs. The long waits, rough neighborhoods, intrusive application process “make you feel like a criminal,” Kimberly said.


“You’re expected to lower your standards because of the situation you’re in. I’m not going to raise my child in a shelter. I don’t want to be on Section 8. I don’t want to be on welfare. We are not that desperate,” she said.

We were chatting in a cramped and chilly motel room they had paid $70 for. The family was packing up to leave and head back to their spot on Avenue of the Stars. They would panhandle enough that day to get off the streets for another night.


I can’t explain why Kimberly turned down offers of help from readers willing to put a roof over her family’s head.

But I can understand why she has lost faith in the overburdened system we rely on to house homeless people in this region.

I spent this week sorting through the network of public and private shelter options. There are too few beds, too much need, too many hoops to jump through.


For the fortunate, the process begins with a few nights or weeks in an emergency shelter or motel room, followed by months in a transitional center that offers help with job search, budgeting and living skills, then graduation to subsidized or low-income housing.

It’s a system designed to guard against cons, reward persistence and promote stability, but it’s hard to navigate when you’re already a vagabond.

The Givens family wound up in the hole of the resource doughnut. Most public shelters for families don’t take boys over the age of 10.

“If you are a whole and complete family, there is not a lot out there for you,” said Ronald Sharp, an intake manager at PATH, People Assisting the Homeless.

He offered the Givens family spots in separate men’s and women’s shelters. By the time Kimberly called him back on Friday, he’d assigned the rooms to others. “But it’s been a good morning,” Sharp said. “I managed to house two people before 9 a.m., both of which have been in need for the last few months.”

I tried the L.A. County Housing Resource Center, but the website said: “Closed to new applicants. Program demand has exceeded expectations for assistance.” The federal stimulus money for the “Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program” apparently ran out before the need dried up.


Readers referred me to private groups from Orange County to San Pedro to Altadena. But no one I called had room. “My next opening is in March,” said Colleen from Anaheim’s Halcyon transitional living program. “Families have to get on the list, then call and keep calling for weeks and maybe we can get them into something.” At the Valley Shelter in North Hollywood, the waiting list was one year.

Getting on the list requires an orientation — “first and third Tuesday of each month” — and a series of “intake interviews.” Some places require credit checks, tax lien records and income tax returns.

“You get burnt out after a while,” Kimberly said. “You line up outside, with people arguing, fighting, urinating on the street.... And what you get is a list of places you can go to take a shower, a schedule for a soup kitchen or a bag of toiletries.”


The Givens family didn’t set out to become poster children for holiday need. They had written me to express gratitude for the help they received from well-heeled celebrities. My column spotlighted their struggles and their miseries.

A year ago they had a toehold in the middle class: A comfortable life, good school, safe neighborhood. So shelter life seems like an insult, and the prospect of life under someone’s else roof feels like an indignity.


But if those prospects are humiliating, is begging on a median strip any better?

“It’s on my terms,” Kimberly said, defiance in her voice. “And I’m going to continue to go after what we need the way I feel is best. I have faith that I’ll be blessed and brought out of this.”

That sounds like she’s expecting an angel to deliver a mansion and a Mercedes. But as irrational as it seems, I understand her need to believe:

Living in a shelter means accepting your comedown, admitting your vulnerability.

A thumbs-up on their corner from the Kardashians allows a family’s experience to play like an episode of reality TV. The attention from successful people lets a mother focus not on her failures, but on her son’s possibilities.

“Nobody can say they got where they are without some help,” Kimberly told me. “I know there’s help out there for us. We’re not hopeless. We’re not giving up.”

The grown-up version of Santa Claus is in full bloom this time of year. Our impulse to help is strong, but so is our incentive to separate the naughty from the nice.

But who is really equipped to decide which families are worthy of holiday grace? Can you disconnect a family’s present from its messy history? Does giving to help a hungry child reward a parent’s profligacy?


Even at Christmas — especially at Christmas — goodwill is much more complicated than plucking a child’s wish from the angel tree.