Homeless, not nameless
I barely noticed the woman who was sleeping on a sidewalk the other morning on Pico Boulevard. I was rushing to meet a friend for coffee, and the last thing on my mind was to delay my first caffeine intake of the day. But maybe because she was lying there so conspicuously under the bright morning sun, I couldn’t help mentioning her to my friend.
“I just saw a homeless woman sleeping,” I told him. “She was probably an adorable little girl one day, with pigtails.”
About an hour later, on the way back to my car, I saw her again, but this time she was sitting up. I hesitated, wondering whether I should talk to her. My mind was telling me to just get in the car and get on with my day, but my heart was urging me to find out who she was.
It’s true that because I write a weekly column, I’m always looking for good stories. But that awareness didn’t lessen my uneasiness. There are enough interesting stories in our community without having to feel the acute awkwardness of speaking to a homeless person.
As a kind of compromise, I walked over and handed her some money. That was easy. Giving money to a homeless person is a perfectly acceptable interaction. No need to engage any further.
But after handing her the money, I caught a glimpse of her eyes as she said, “Oh, thank you!” I guess my heart must have overpowered my mind, because at that moment I pushed myself to engage. As we began talking, I asked if I could film our conversation, and she agreed. So I pulled out my iPhone and recorded my sidewalk chat with a homeless woman named Natalie Levine.
Later, as I viewed the eight-minute clip, I was in awe at how much the film conveyed: her facial expressions, her voice, her cadence, her anxiety, her mannerisms, her eyes, even the street life as people walked by.
I hadn’t taken any notes. I didn’t have to. The human drama was all in the film, as raw as can be. There would be no need to write up a story.
As much as I love telling stories through words, it struck me that people should see and hear this woman, not just read about her. With subjects that are deeply uncomfortable, words on a page can create a safe distance.
There is no safe distance when you look into a homeless person’s eyes and feel their presence. What I felt when I looked into Natalie’s eyes was her humanity, pure and simple. Yes, there was a story behind those eyes, and I got a few glimpses — a Jewish woman in her early 30s who attended a Hebrew day school in Connecticut, lost her parents at a young age, has been homeless for years and looked like she caught all of life’s bad breaks.
Just as important, that story came with a real name: Natalie Levine. There is a special intimacy to a name, especially one that sounds so familiar. After we posted the clip on social media, people kept referring to her name. They wanted to help Natalie Levine. A few people even got on my case: Telling Natalie’s story is not enough, they said. You must do something.
So I did.
I went back to Pico the next day to track her down. Then, with the assistance of friends and volunteers who had reached out to me, I spent a week helping out any way I could. We put Natalie up in a motel to buy us time to find a longer-term solution. We gave her food for Shabbat, helped her clean up and got her new clothes. My daughter and I even took her to a park with our dog, Hank.
As I contacted shelters and experts around town, I got a taste of the complexity of the homeless problem. It’s not as simple as helping people who want to be helped. It’s compounded by issues such as mental health and personal traumas.
After we checked her out of the motel, we spent a long day looking for a shelter, with no luck. By midnight, we had found partners who placed her in a temporary facility an hour from Los Angeles, where we went to visit her during the week.
We caught a major break when I bumped into longtime local public servant Zev Yaroslavsky at an Israel event. After I told him Natalie’s story, he knew what was needed. He has spent years working on this problem. He connected me the following day to an ideal facility, and they took her case.
Natalie is certainly not out of the woods, but at least for now, she’s off the streets and under a caring umbrella. She has hope.
I’m no expert on homelessness. I don’t pretend to have a solution to this dark, complex blight on modern life. But after spending a week with Natalie Levine, I’ve learned at least one thing: When you look into a homeless person’s eyes, it becomes easier to help.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.