Homeless on Pico— Natalie Levine Update: Day 6

Natalie Levine did not sleep on the street last night. We were able to place her in a temporary facility about an hour from Los Angeles. This is a reprieve that will, hopefully, buy time for a longer term solution. Lots of people and experts have reached out to help, and they are invaluable. As you might expect, the bureaucracy is just that, a bureaucracy. We experienced it first hand yesterday, when we bounced around looking for a shelter or any place that would take her.

I don’t want to sound like an easy critic of bureaucracy. The homeless problem is extremely complicated and it’s compounded by other issues, like mental health and life traumas. I got a little taste of this complexity over the past week. Maybe at some point, I will write in greater detail about it.

For now, our immediate goal was to keep Natalie off the streets, even for just a few more days. The amazing team at Cedars Sinai Hospital helped save the day—and the night.

I think one of the reasons many people in the Jewish community have rallied to Natalie’s cause is her Jewish neshama. In this short video clip, as we were waiting for a case worker, I asked her to go down her Jewish memory lane.

Homeless on Pico—Natalie Levine Update: Day 5

It was a difficult weekend. After years of sleeping on sidewalks, Natalie had trouble acclimating herself to a motel environment. We heard from someone on Facebook that they saw her late Friday night walking on Pico Boulevard in an agitated state. When Aliza Wiseman went to check on her Saturday morning, the manager was (understandably) quite upset. Luckily, Aliza was able to calm her down and spent most of Saturday helping out with Natalie, bringing her food and cigarettes and cleaning her room.

It’s a good thing we had already paid for three nights (we have already raised $600 through my daughter’s crowdfunding page—which will cover all immediate expenses) which meant Natalie was OK until Monday morning.

I spent most of Sunday trying to find a shelter that would take in Natalie. Lots of people reached out through Facebook with leads, but most of those leads didn’t pan out. We had more success with a social worker with the Department of Mental Health, who reached out to me. We texted back and forth on Sunday. She referred me to a legal aid attorney and connected me to a shelter in Culver City, which I contacted by phone. I told the person all I knew about Natalie. He was open and welcoming. The fact that he thanked me for helping out was encouraging.

They open at 1PM today and are expecting her.

I checked in on Natalie around 11am. She was still in an agitated state. We couldn’t find the key as we checked out, so I gave the manager some money to replace it. It’s clear that Natalie has some issues. She can ramble on and be incoherent. Once in a while, though, she’ll let out a smile and be quite coherent, as when I said the checheyanu blessing.

We had a couple of hours to kill before the shelter opened, so we decided to take her to a park near my house. My daughter Tova met us there with our dog Hank. This seemed to relax her a bit. We then decided she needed another shower before going to the shelter, so we took her to our place and she showered in Tova’s room and put on some fresh clothes we got at Ross. After lunch, we will take her to the shelter.

Will send another update tonight.

Hope and help for the homeless at LAFH

Los Angeles Family Housing (LAFH) is the largest provider of homeless services in the San Fernando Valley. The organization got its start in the early 1980s with the conversion of an old North Hollywood motel to house homeless families. Today, LAFH encompasses 23 properties, from Lancaster to Boyle Heights. 

The organization proudly sees 92 percent of its clients go on to secure permanent housing. Last year, it served nearly 3,500 people. 

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer, 46, has been president and CEO of LAFH since 2007. Jewish Journal sat down with the Northridge native and longtime Adat Ari El member in her office at the Sydney M. Irmas Transitional Living Center in North Hollywood, which is home to 65 families, to discuss everything from the myth of people “choosing” to live on the streets to ways that even child volunteers can make a difference.

Jewish Journal: How do individuals or families connect with you? Or how do you connect with them?

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer: We are one of the most sought-after shelters in the county, for families, primarily because of our unique model that allows families to stay together. In contrast, at most shelters … they have a women’s floor and a men’s floor. They separate by gender from 14 on. So a little girl could not stay with her dad.

[At LAFH] whether you are a single dad with his little girl or you are a grandpa, mother, father and four teenage boys, we can accommodate any configuration of a family. It might be crowded if you’re a family of 10, but you have your own bathroom, and the door locks. So, we’re well-known and always full.

How do singles come to us? Word of mouth. We are the only shelter for individuals that is non-recovery-based in the Valley. 

In the last two years we have made a much more concerted effort to do street-based outreach: We go into Tujunga Wash, meet individuals who have been living burrowed in brush for 15 years; we go out into Lake View Terrace. A gentleman we met there, his name is The Wizard. He’s been living at the side of a freeway off-ramp literally for 22 years. So we’re going out into the streets more and identifying the most vulnerable.

JJ: But not everyone necessarily wants help, right?

SKG: We see it as they are not ready for it yet. Nobody wants to live on the street. They may be incapacitated because of mental health. They may be scared.

We just opened up a new part of a building last year. The Wizard, he moved into his own apartment there. It’s not a shelter. He signed a lease. He’s cooking meals in his own kitchen. That took about a year and a half: getting him first to come indoors, then, once indoors, to stay indoors.

JJ: What sort of opportunities are there for volunteers?

SKG: We have a number of volunteer opportunities that we really try to make meaningful for the volunteer and supportive of what our residents need. It could range from hosting a monthly birthday party for all the kids on that property to working in our kitchens and helping to prepare a meal. Another option that is not on-site but that is truly beneficial is doing a collection. We have corporations that do, for example, Toothpaste Tuesdays or diapers on Friday and then donating that to us. 

We just had a teenager do a fabulous reading-cooking club. She would read children’s books to little kids that all had some food association, like “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” and they would make cookies. 

We have a tremendous amount of community volunteers through high schools. A lot of them provide assistance through Homework Club. We even have little kids coming on-site. They might be sorting welcome baskets. 

JJ: Beyond providing for their basic needs, what can LAFH do to foster a sense of pride and drive in the clients, especially the kids? 

SKG: They have to earn it here. We have Scrub Day Fridays. Residents have to give back and help clean. There is a lot of focus in our family programs on educating, and educational enrichment. We have a lot of incentives to help our kids succeed academically. 

One of the things we do really well: We celebrate milestones all along our residents’ journeys. We don’t just celebrate when they move into permanent housing. We recognize that a kid gets a great attendance record. If he got a C on a spelling test and he hadn’t been engaged before, we celebrate that. If someone gets a certificate in a job training program, we celebrate. We don’t just celebrate the getting the job. I think that fosters a great sense of pride in the accomplishments that each resident is achieving. 

We [also] have a mandatory savings program.

JJ: There’s a bank at LAFH?

SKG: Yes there is, without any fees. Many of our residents don’t have any form of credit. We do a lot of work on creating budgets and savings. There is tremendous pride when a resident leaves and realizes they saved $2,000. 

They are supposed to save 80 percent of their income no matter what their income is. Remember, they don’t have any expenses when they are living here. They are going to have a lot of expenses when they move out. It doesn’t matter if you’re getting $200 a month in general relief or earning $1,200 a month — we want you to save 80 percent so you leave with some cushion and you get in the good habit of saving.

JJ: Can you share a success story?

SKG: Fara’s story is a wonderful success story. She [and her four children] moved out of the shelter about four years ago. They have remained stable and successful. The mom is Fara, and the oldest daughter is Fara also. They lived here for three years. Fara [the daughter] is only 15 now. She was, like, 11 when she lived here. These were really children who grew up homeless.

That they succeeded in their transition out of homelessness — a single mom with a lot of barriers — this is the proudest, happiest family unit you could meet. Fara [the daughter] is a successful cheerleader in high school, getting straight A’s. … What Fara’s daughter always says is, “My mom always taught us not to let our situation define us. It’s because of her we succeeded.” 

Sukkot on the streets — finding community amid temporary shelter

When he woke up from a six-month coma, Al Sabo (photo) found his life unraveled. His wife had attempted suicide, and his three children were in foster care. He had lost his job as the managing editor of a trade publication. He couldn’t walk.

After several months of rehabilitation, Sabo ended up on the streets of downtown Los Angeles. He was almost 60 years old, white, and had spent his life avoiding places like Skid Row.

On his first night without shelter, he lay on the cold concrete in the dark, terrified of what a group of young, predominantly black drug addicts might do to him if he fell asleep. As it turned out, what they did was help him survive.

“They watched over me. It was totally amazing,” he said. “They went out and hustled up food for me. They took care of me. It gave me a whole different perspective of who people here really are, and a new understanding of the problems they’re facing.”

Sabo slept on the street for two months. He learned how to create a makeshift shelter with cardboard and tarp. He learned that, in the most precarious of situations, people with very little are willing to give a lot.

Every night on Skid Row, 5,000 people pile onto shelter cots or erect their flimsy huts in the concrete desert of the city. Another 9,000 go to bed in the area’s residency hotels, hoping to still have a roof over their heads the next day. In the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, year-round they share their sukkot with each other and remind us that we have failed to do the same for them.

When Sabo’s disability check came, he was able to afford a room at the Frontier Hotel. The Frontier is less than one block away from where I live, in a loft on Main Street. But Sabo and I are separated by much more than the physical space between us.

I am part of the new downtown, a much-touted “revitalization” of L.A.’s urban core. When I tell people in other parts of the city where I live, they say things like, “I hear they’re really cleaning up the area.”

Sabo is part of the old downtown. He’s poor, disabled and doesn’t have anywhere else to go. When others talk about “cleaning up the area,” they are talking about getting rid of people like him.

ALTTEXTIn the last few years, gentrification has swept downtown Los Angeles. Developers set their sights on the area’s residency hotels, and city officials, eager to preside over the rejuvenation of a long-neglected city center, failed to protect those who for decades have called these hotels home. Countless residents have already been displaced. Thousands more, like Sabo, are trying to hang on.

Just three months after Sabo moved into the Frontier — a slum property by city standards — the building’s owner began converting the hotel’s 450 rooms into market-rate apartments.

Sabo, like most of his neighbors, had been paying $400 a month for a 150-square-foot room at the Frontier. He said he had problems with roaches and rats and didn’t have any heat in the winter. It was no bargain, but it was the cheapest rent in town.

Now the owner was ridding the hotel of tenants like Sabo, one floor at a time.

“They were not only converting the top floors into lofts, they built a separate entrance on Main Street because they didn’t want these people associating with the residents that were already there,” Sabo said. “They certainly didn’t want people that had been there for years to mix with the young yuppies that were coming into the lofts and paying a lot more money.”

The newer, wealthier residents entered the building through a grand, recently refurbished lobby with its own set of elevators. The old residents, most of them black and many disabled, entered from another side of the building, through a bleak, concrete chamber.

The Frontier was a microcosm of what was happening downtown. Block after city block featured advertisements for the new urban life. Old buildings were festooned with images of young white couples in modern interiors, a reminder to longtime residents that the new downtown would not include them.

These low-income residents felt they had been doubly neglected by the city: Before gentrification turned these blighted properties into valuable real estate, they said, the city departments in charge of enforcing fire codes and habitability laws turned a blind eye. When the evictions began, they said city officials failed to enforce state and local rent- control laws that would keep them from joining the ranks of the homeless.

Housing rights advocates and community members used to fight the city and downtown landlords to improve slum conditions. Now they were fighting just to keep people inside.

The Bristol Hotel, just a few blocks away from the Frontier and a stone’s throw from City Hall, was emptied in three days. Many of the tenants said they were evicted at gunpoint.

The Alexandria Hotel was purchased, with substantial help from the city, by a developer who evicted 100 tenants in the first year. Activists said some mentally disabled residents were simply locked out, and remaining tenants, many of them elderly, were stranded on top floors for days without working elevators or running water. The city officials who subsidized the renovation ignored countless pleas from tenants complaining of rampant abuses.

A lesson in listening

It was a cold summer day in Northern California when I had the opportunity to participate in Project Homeless Connect, a one-day program that occurs three to six times a year to assist veterans and others. While this project has been implemented in many places across the United States, I attended an event in the Veteran Center of San Francisco.

Project Homeless Connect provides important services, including medical treatments, haircuts, hearing checks, dentistry, massage and podiatry. Lunch was provided, and not only were groceries in ample supply, but recipients were provided with large bags to carry them. Volunteers worked at stands where these services were provided.

My day at Project Homeless Connect was a field trip during a three-week course on civic leadership, a program of the Center for Talented Youth run by Johns Hopkins University. Along with 75 other high school students, I stayed at San Francisco State University, learning about the root causes of social issues such as poverty, homelessness and unemployment.

Having been in Jewish day school for my entire elementary education, the emphasis of mitzvot (which can be defined both as good deeds to serve others and obligations) has stuck with me throughout middle and high school. Exploring efforts to reduce homelessness was in keeping with the Jewish values I strive to apply to my everyday life in ways that will benefit the world as a whole.

What I most liked about Project Homeless Connect was that it doesn’t just provide a place to stay for the night, but much more. Volunteers treated their “clients” as equals, a service that many of them seldom had experienced. My job was seemingly simple — to accompany clients from the entrance of the Veterans Building to various aid areas upstairs, depending upon their needs. In doing so, not only was I directing them and physically taking them upstairs (as some of them were in wheelchairs), but I got a chance to converse with them and hear their personal stories.

I was partnered with a woman who, before she even really met me, thanked me for just showing up as a volunteer. She was homeless in San Francisco and felt that she had nowhere to turn before she found Project Homeless Connect. As I walked her to the housing information stand, she displayed thorough delight that somebody was beside her to hear all that she had to say. It seemed as if very few people, or none, had bothered to listen to her full story.

She told me she had spent many years serving our country in the Navy. She left the military and eventually became poor and dismayed by what she had seen in war, and married a man who physically and mentally abused her. She did not have a job at the time, and when she finally gathered the strength and courage to leave him, she found herself homeless. She is currently looking for a job, and the services she received on the day of Project Homeless Veterans Connect gave her the basic resources she needs to get on her feet so that she can be in a better position to seek employment.

As this woman told me her enthralling story, she paused periodically to mention her appreciation for all God has given her. As we looked around us, we saw other veterans who had served their country proudly and now found themselves homeless and, in many cases, severely emotionally or physically disabled. The woman told me of how she felt their pain but was thankful that her situation was not as dire as those surrounding us. She reminded me that “every day that we live is a blessing by God” and even said that she wants to volunteer at Project Homeless Connect when she one day has a house, a job and some free time.

She inspired me to remember God in my everyday life and although she was not Jewish (I believe she was Catholic), her humble nature made me think of the 10th commandment given directly by God at Mount Sinai: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”

Instead of having envy for the people at the top of the social or economic ladder, she simply focused on God’s gifts given to her every day — things as uncomplicated as a smile from a stranger on the street, a hot meal from Project Homeless Connect or an attentive person to hear her story.

Ariel Cohen is a junior at the Archer School for Girls in Brentwood.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the November issue is Oct. 15; deadline for the December issue is Nov. 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.