The first few nights that two strangers spent under my roof, I couldn’t sleep. I stashed a rusty hatchet under my bed. The blade was so dull that the best I could have hoped for was that it might cause a tetanus infection. What had I been thinking when I invited a young homeless couple — and their pet rabbit — into my house?
This June, I participated in Safe Place for Youth’s Host Home Program, short-term “interventions” for unhoused young people, ages 18 to 24. In December, stuck in L.A. traffic, my ears had pricked up. Marlene and Michael Rapkin were on the radio describing an inspiring three months they’d spent as two of Safe Place’s initial cadre of hosts.
“Welcoming the stranger” is one of my core Jewish values, and I’d helped with the annual homeless count. I knew the problem was serious — 1 in 10 young people in the U.S. experience homelessness in a 12-month period. But could I take in someone off the street? What with a recent divorce, my kid’s stint in rehab and college expenses, I’d been renting out a guest bedroom to make my monthly nut. But when a tenant canceled, and I learned that Safe Space offered a small stipend to offset hosts’ household expenses, I challenged myself to “walk the walk” of my social justice values.
In its host training sessions, Safe Place provided helpful prompts advising us that “youth will sometimes make choices we don’t agree with” and that our guests were most likely without shelter “through no fault of their own.” Its get-to-know-you host-guest picnic was not unlike a Match.com mingle, and afterward, I offered to house any of the youths I’d met except that heavily tattooed couple. She had the word “cured” in bold block lettering on one cheek and “More Love” above her brow; his forehead read “Less Hate”; alas, a skater beanie obscured “Less.”
So what if we’d agreed that hot coffee is vastly superior to cold caffeinated drinks, these two looked … sketchy. Plus, I wouldn’t feel safe being outnumbered. And the rabbit — my cat deems anything furry dinner. Then I learned that Keyawna and Jesse had been living — sweltering — in their 2008 Kia. I’ve complained that my marriage broke up because my spouse and I shared a bathroom. The least I could do was help keep that bunny alive.
Before my housemates arrived, I scrubbed the guest bathroom and put out the good sheets and towels. But I also hid my jewelry and the sterling silver flatware in my bedroom closet. The couple showed up hours late.
“Irresponsible,” I thought.
“Unorganized,” I told my friend Judith, who promptly reminded me that I’d once been three hours late for a lunch date.
Right away, my inner circle fretted for my safety. “Text me before you go to bed,” urged one message. I made light of my fears by keeping a running tally: “It’s been 24 hours and my house hasn’t burned down!” Meanwhile, Keyawna and Jesse occupied themselves with suspicious activities like preparing salads, unloading the dishwasher (unprompted), feeding the predatory cat, calling their mothers and joining the congregation of a church.
They didn’t owe me their story, but they wanted to share it. They’d grown up in the Rust Belt, where one in five children are raised in poverty. (Alison Hurt, executive director and founder of Safe Place, says most of the young people she serves are “children of the working poor.”) Between them, Keyawna and Jesse had experienced home foreclosures, utility shutoffs, transiency and the economic blow of family members with health problems. Each had forfeited a college scholarship, partly out of a desire to contribute to their families’ strained finances and partly to pursue a future in the capital of creativity.
Safe Place likes to match hosts and guests with shared backgrounds. I, too, had come to L.A. to further my artistic pursuits. I too had dropped out of college due to my family’s financial woes. I funded my relocation by selling stocks I’d been given as a bat mitzvah present from a family friend; they’d worked minimum-wage, manual labor jobs.
Keyawna had arrived first. She lucked out, landing a job as a personal assistant and a house-sitting situation. But the job ended, Jesse joined her, and they lost their savings paying up front for a nonexistent Airbnb rental. I’d hit L.A. with the advantages of industry contacts, a few local ties and deeper pockets. They knew no one and faced a much tighter housing market. In 1989, I paid $750 for an apartment that today would go for $2,800. Soon Jesse and Keyawna were couch surfing, and then, the car.
“Why don’t they get service jobs?” a friend asked. I had an idea why, having tried and failed to help my own kid get a summer dishwashing job. In ’89, I easily scored a steady hostessing shift, but Jesse and Keyawna were subject to the vagaries of the gig economy. Their attempts to put together first and last month’s rent, and a security deposit, by “juicing” Lime electric scooters and Postmating proved unsuccessful.
Still, that phrase “through no fault of their own” floated through my head. They’d chosen expensive L.A. But if the city can’t accommodate artists from economically diverse backgrounds, then only the privileged will get to create. I was also certain face tats were job killers, until Keyawna explained that they fit their “brand,” and most were Jesse’s designs. He’s a visual artist; she’s an aspiring rapper and soul singer.
At one point, Jesse showed me a picture of his parents. “In case you wanted to know,” he said. What he meant was, in case I wasn’t already convinced that he was loved, lovable, loving. I’d bounced around a lot when I moved to town, but I never felt compelled to prove my humanity by showing a picture of my parents to those who hosted me.
During their last days under my roof, I invited Keyawna into my closet so we could ferret out clothing for a music video she was shooting. In clear view of my jewelry and silver, I was abandoning every last “us” and “them” I’d been clinging to. Every boundary I’d set was crossed. (She told me later they’d hidden their valuables from me too.)
Six out of the six youths in Safe Place’s inaugural Host Home Program ultimately landed in permanent housing, and there’s every reason to hope Keyawna and Jesse will too. They are currently living with another Safe Place host family. The model is so promising, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority is helping to fund its expansion here. With approximately 500,000 single-family homes in Los Angeles, if only 10% of homeowners participated, we wouldn’t see any young people living on our streets.
After Keyawna and Jesse left, I found bits of pulpy bunny litter lodged in the nooks and crannies of my home and a note thanking me for changing their lives. But it was my default otherizations that got reset, my assumptions that were corrected. I never did ask Keyawna why she had “cured” inked on her cherubic face, but I hope she stays that way. Although I expect to remain tattoo free, Jesse’s “More Love, Less Hate” combo does hold a certain appeal.
Actor and writer Annabelle Gurwitch is working on a new collection of essays, “You’re Leaving When?” This op-ed was underwritten by a grant from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.