Must Reads: Many people work hard to avoid the homeless. These volunteers embrace them
The homelessness crisis gripping Southern California is impossible to miss — and evokes many different emotions.
Voters in Los Angeles approved more than $1 billion to help provide more housing. At the same time, a proposal to build temporary homeless shelters across the city has sparked protests from residents who say it will ruin their neighborhoods.
The furor over shelters exemplifies a larger reality in the region: Some people try to avoid homeless people when they cross paths with them on street. Then there are others who embrace them.
The desperate sights of people living in forgotten alleys and dark freeway underpasses have sparked many to act. Outraged and enlivened, they have made helping homeless people their mission. Here are the stories of six volunteers.
On a recent morning, Dan Johnson strolls down 5th Street past humans and tarps and trash — his plaid shirtsleeves ripped, his bushy mustache flopping over his top lip.
“Guthrie? His Nickel wouldn’t have looked much different,” he says, referencing the great singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, who spent lots of time around skid row and 5th Street, or “the Nickel.”
Johnson’s destination is a small, bland classroom in the Midnight Mission, an assistance center for the homeless. A reading class that includes George Ocegueda awaits him.
Johnson, 31, is a writer, researcher and avid connoisseur of Los Angeles history. When he moved downtown nearly a decade ago, the scope and pain of skid row shocked him.
Living in such close proximity made homelessness something he just couldn’t ignore.
Three years ago, he started teaching once a week at the Midnight Mission. But quickly, he recognized the course materials, which prepared students for an eighth-grade equivalency test, were deeply flawed.
“At best they were preparing grown men for a test they would never have to take,” he says. “At worst, these materials were wildly out of touch with the substance of my students’ lives.”
So, with a small grant, he created what he calls “The Skid Row Reader” — a 78-page collection of works that show the beauty and misery of this city.
As class begins, Johnson explains his little creation and tells the six students that they will read one paragraph at a time and discuss. He starts with an excerpt from a work by Carey McWilliams and a question:
“How many of you have you been to Pershing Square?”
“The book is nice because you can compare the geography that people are familiar with,” Johnson says. “The terms are different, but that translation is what people can draw on.”
One student reads: “Emerging next day from the hotel into the painfully bright sunlight, I started the rocky pilgrimage through Pershing Square to my office in a state of miserable decrepitude.”
A knowing murmur rises as the students realize that McWilliams was nursing a monster hangover. That’s when Ocegueda chimes in wanting to know about McWilliams’ word choice. “Decrepitude” catches his eye.
“I’m trying to learn bigger words,” Ocegueda says.
So they break it down, and Johnson comes up with a definition that entertains everyone: “Just feeling like ass.”
The class laughs, and Johnson marches on as Ocegueda repeats “decrepitude” several times. Indian burial grounds, oil derricks and the city’s sordid, riotous history all come up. Most everyone is engaged. Sure, there is Johnny who nods off in the first row, but as the hour wraps up, Ocegueda exclaims: “That was a good class.”
On a Sunday morning, Rose Rios, 70, rolls her beat-up minivan full of bread, bananas and blankets into a trash-strewn alley in South Los Angeles.
She is there to talk with Donald Shields, who lives in a makeshift lean-to with two of his childhood friends, out of sight and in a sorry state.
Days earlier, Rios found Shields there, sitting with a tarp partially shielding his face. He didn’t notice. He has a prosthetic left eye and is legally blind in the right — the result of getting shot decades ago, he said. One of the temples of his glasses is missing, and he hasn’t showered since December.
Shields says he ended up here late last year after getting robbed in September, while at the bank. This led him to fall behind on his rent. Soon after, he lost his home and all his possessions.
Now he sits in this alley with his friends Daniel and Wayne listening to basketball on a battered radio.
That was until “Mama Rose” arrived.
“I’m-a keep up with you, Donald,” Rios says at one point. “I ain’t going to let you go. Know I got you covered.”
Rios sees the condition of Shields and the others in this alley and knows she needs to act fast. Daniel’s girlfriend, Aldora, has only recently been released from the hospital and is bedridden — too weak to stand and barely able to speak — with flies circling and cats crawling around her.
Rios, 70, runs Cover the Homeless Ministry from her home and, save some financial support from a local church and City Councilman Curren Price, alone. She doesn’t get paid, and her mission is to shepherd the neediest cases through the byzantine social services system and get them into housing. She’s been doing this on her own for more than two decades.
The following Tuesday, Rios organizes Donald’s way out. She helps him get set up with a motel voucher for a week. She buses him to the motel. She buys him food. And once they are in the motel, she puts on a pair of latex gloves and scrubs the burly 57-year-old’s dry, dirt-caked skin in the shower.
“Don’t be ashamed, I got three babies,” Rios says, referring to her own adult children as Shields disrobes.
“Just drop the pants right on the floor.”
Dressed in a blue jumpsuit and fanny pack, Rios’ hair is shaded with a purple hue. Her demeanor throughout this process is jubilant, except in one moment. When Shields gets the keys to that motel room, Rios breaks down. Tears stream down her face, and she lets out a loud moan in the parking lot.
“There are so many of them out there — everywhere you go,” she says through the sobs. “It feels so good when you have helped one, but you’ve got to help more.”
Shields stands silently at her side. After his shower and some El Pollo Loco, Shields sits on his bed with ESPN turned on loud — seemingly satisfied. He even yawns.
“I expected her to bring me something to eat now and then. I didn’t expect this.”
Now it’s time for Rios to go. She has to figure out how to get Aldora some help.
On a warm Wednesday evening, Richard Bauarschi stands in a Fullerton park-and-ride lot right off the 5 Freeway and blows an airhorn.
The piercing sound stirs several disheveled individuals, who wander through traffic and across the street toward the lot. Out of a culvert that runs parallel to the freeway, several more appear.
In the dark, lit only by street lamps, automobile headlights and neon signs, these individuals coming forward look like zombies.
Bauarschi has been coming to this area every Wednesday for more than a decade. Along with several other volunteers, they convene at the Vineyard Church in Anaheim to pack up supplies and then hit several stops where the homeless of Orange County reside. Since the county began clearing larger homeless encampments along the Santa Ana riverbed, the number of people they service has dropped dramatically.
It used to be up to 100 people every Wednesday. Now, it’s closer to two dozen. Still, the relationships he and his group have fostered and the fact that they’re there every week are a point of pride.
“We’re not a random, flash-in-the-pan type of outfit,” Bauarschi says.
“We’re deliberately not here on the holidays or weekends. Those are for someone else to do,” Bauarschi adds later.
“You don’t realize how privileged we are until you see how bad of shape some of these people are in.”
Bauarschi and his cohort, a loose assembly of like-minded believers and friends from church, bring bags of food and the word of God. In this park-and-ride, they first gather in a circle to pray. One volunteer pulls out an iPad and begins reading from the Book of Acts.
Bauarschi has known Ricky, a homeless veteran, since they started making these runs around 2007. Stooped over and unable to stand for very long, Ricky leaves the circle as everyone bows their heads in prayer.
Of Bauarschi’s help, Ricky says: “He gives us sandwiches and advice.”
Tiffany, 19, came out of the culvert with her friend Alex, who is wearing a Lakers jersey and is bleeding from his nose. He doesn’t say how he got injured.
Bauarschi says he has known her for a year, and she says she’s been on the streets since she was 17. Sitting on the ground alongside her bike, she tells Bauarschi that her tent and clothes were lost.
“I don’t got a tent, but I got a tarp,” Bauarschi says before heading over to his truck.
The group’s final stop is William Peak Park in Buena Park. The folks congregating by the gazebo avoid a sprinkler system to come pray and receive some sustenance. Bauarschi is heartened to hear that one man whom he sees most weeks — Eugene — is out of the hospital.
The group prays for his speedy recovery and cracks jokes at one another’s expense.
Don Wallace says he has lived in a white Ford Explorer for five years. This weekly confab is a great help practically, but it also provides a measure of self-worth, he says. It shows someone is thinking about him even when others are not.
“The fact that they’re here every week,” he said.
“It’s something you can rely on. It’s a good thing. It can’t be easy getting out here.”
Paula Coleman’s “Keeping Your Job” class at the nonprofit Chrysalis is equal parts Tony Robbins seminar and practical guide to staying employed.
The students — many of whom are homeless — have already gone through workshops on how to do job interviews and craft resumes.
Here, under Coleman’s encouragement, they contemplate the intricacies of the 21st century workplace and Coleman’s all-important mantra: “Fake it until you make it.”
“‘Back in the day’ is over,” she bellows out to the class.
The former Los Angeles Unified School District educator repeats “Fake it until you make it” over and over again throughout the class. She also tells her own story. It took her 10 years of night classes to get an associates degree from West Los Angeles College, she says. But she knew she wanted to teach. So she kept at it and received a bachelor’s degree, and then became the person who teaches other teachers how to use computers.
She also explains to the class that she never smiles. It’s not because she’s always angry, she says. She just doesn’t.
“I had to teach myself to smile. You have to smile. You should practice it…. I can’t follow you out the door. I’m not on your shoulder. You’re responsible for yourself!”
After delving into her own biography, it’s time for some role-playing.
Using a whiteboard eraser as a prop for a busted cellphone, Coleman volunteers two students for a mock confrontation. One pretends to be a disgruntled Verizon customer. And the other student is the customer service representative.
“Lights, camera, action,” Coleman says.
Michael, the disgruntled customer, begins to yell about a faulty phone. Julian attempts to calm him down.
The interaction ends in laughs as Michael struggles to contain Julian’s theatrical rage. But, for Coleman, it represents an opportunity to make a salient point.
If faced with a raging customer or boss, she says, “Talk to yourself and say, ‘I don’t want to go backwards.’”
Coleman reminds the class again of her mantra: “Fake it until you make it.”
“Everyone doesn’t have the same opportunity,” she adds.
“Because something happened in life doesn’t mean it’s the end.”
She says she tells all the students that if they’re ever back around Chrysalis, to come say hello. It warms her heart when they do. She knows the lessons of these classes may not stick with everyone. To be sure, several students nod off or refuse to follow along during class.
Still, she feels a great sense of accomplishment every week when she strolls into the conference room and pulls out the dry erase markers and begins preparing for “Keeping Your Job.”
Every day in San Julian Park, Wendell Blassingame sets up a folding table and chair and sticks an oversize umbrella through an orange parking cone to create some shade for himself.
The park, right at the epicenter of skid row, is a hive of activity. It’s where food is distributed, drugs are sold and dominoes are played.
Blassingame descends from his home next to the park and is out there for a different reason.
He wants to help people get into housing, or help them get clothes or maybe help them replace a lost identification card. Really, he’ll help however he can.
“I’m just an individual trying to make an individual’s life better,” he says.
Blassingame tries to be an honest broker and insists to everyone that he will value their privacy above all else. For Blassingame, it’s personal. Around 2002, his wife passed away and his drinking got much worse.
For a period of time, he lived on the street and became what he calls a “WDC — We Don’t Care.”
“When people get homeless, they don’t care about the future,” Blassingame adds.
“They don’t want anything but today. Whatever exists for today — strictly today — is what matters.”
So part of Blassingame’s mission is to make people care. He hosts job fairs and movie screenings at the James Wood Community Center (several Tyler Perry movies were recently screened to the great delight of many, he says).
Early one afternoon, Brad Boyles, 64, with long strides, plops himself down at Blassingame’s table. They’ve been working together for a while, and Boyles — once stricken with prostate cancer — has Blassingame to thank for having a roof over his head.
Boyles says his lack of steady work and a lengthy criminal history made it hard for him to find a home.
“I don’t know what kind of miracles he worked, but I’m not on the streets anymore. I’m on the inside. I’m in a home,” Boyles says.
“I have a great deal of gratitude for him.”
Boyles says he wants to find a different apartment, where he doesn’t have to share a bathroom. Still, he’s worried that if he moves, he’ll lose his security deposit. Blassingame conveys a sense of knowing authority. He tells him to calm down — that they’ll figure it all out.
Right now, it’s important that Boyles focuses on getting to his doctor’s appointments, Blassingame says.
It’s these types of stories that Blassingame is most proud of. On his little table, there’s a battered blue notebook filled with his scrawling handwriting.
In that book, there are 159 names and 159 phone numbers. They belong to people Blassingame has placed into housing. Boyles says that having a guy like Blassingame in his corner goes a long way.
After hearing that gratitude, Blassingame has a simple response: “I’m just a person who cares.”
Tiffany Rose is a quiet force who has created a constellation of do-gooders. Each week she leads a small group of acolytes to skid row, where they give out food and clothing.
It’s a whirl of activity, and Rose is pulled in several directions at any given moment. Where should the perishables go? Who will be on the street teams that seek out skid row’s homeless to offer them food?
And who will stand where and which hashtag will they use when the volunteers tweet and post pictures to Instagram about her nonprofit My Friend’s House Foundation?
Each Wednesday though, rain or shine, Rose is at the center of this storm.
Clad in Army fatigues, she leads a group of friends as they set up tables and then hand out food to the city’s neediest. They feed a couple of hundred people and offer them additional sustenance and clothing that they can take away.
“We need someone to carry the tables,” she says to some other volunteers.
Rose is from Virginia and explains that when she first moved to Los Angeles and saw skid row, “it seemed surreal.”
“It moved my spirit and never left me. A friend of mine and I walked around on Sundays and we said we have to do this regularly. Consistency is key.”
In the last couple of years, Rose’s operation has expanded. The foundation now has a brick and mortar location where they give haircuts and sell clothes at discounted prices. The space is her pride and a logical continuation of the weekly food drive.
Along with the food and clothing giveaways, the heart of the organization remains the volunteers — some of whom have been with Rose since the beginning nearly a decade ago. Before they begin, though, Rose calls for everyone’s attention and they begin to pray. The homeless are lining up waiting, and once the prayer is over, they stream past as gospel music plays.
“I need shoes,” one homeless person says. Rose informs her that clothing is at the end of the line.
As the day of food distribution wraps up, Rose looks out on the people who are still homeless and destitute.
“We need to be reliable, consistent and dependable. The need never leaves.”
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