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.

I did send help. I sent you.

As a mother and an educator, I have come to believe that children possess a simplicity so pure, so unfettered, so raw that it has the power to startle our souls awake.

Driving home from an epic grocery shop, Olivia, six years old and a newly-minted reader, noticed a man standing on the grassy bank at the intersection of San Vicente and La Cienega holding up a tattered piece of cardboard asking for shelter. “Where does he sleep?” she asked Andrew, my husband.

“Great question,” he responded, and trying to turn it into a teachable moment launched into an explanation of the tragic epidemic of homelessness in Los Angeles and the solutions like prop HHH and the shelter system downtown. “So, why can’t we build him a shelter?” she asked the question again, this time with a greater sense of urgency. Andrew, pivoted, realizing the nuanced explanation of propositions were over her head. “Daddy, she said again. “He needs shelter. Why can’t we build it?”

His first approach was logistical. “Where would we build it? What materials would we use? How would we make the shelter safe?” Olivia countered: “We would build it behind our house. We can get wood from the hardware store like you did for my bunk bed. We can put a lock on it, or a sign, or both.” He hesitated, trying to make sense of it himself, she sensed it, and asserted, “See, we can build him a shelter.”

His second approach returned to the bigger picture. “Homelessness is really a complicated issue in our city. Thousands and thousands of people need shelters. There are shelters in our city where he can go to sleep tonight. Plus, shelter is only part of the issue. There is medicine, food, employment, hygiene.” Again, Olivia countered, “He doesn’t know how to find those other shelters. He doesn’t want those shelters. Ours would be better. You’re a good builder and so is me. It could be like an enormous fort. I’ll bring my extra pillow.”

For a single moment, the belief transferred from daughter to father, that it really was that simple.

His third approach was emotional. His eyes teary, he knelt down, drew her close, and he told her what a kind heart she had. “I wish we could, Livi. I wish it was that simple.” Her lip quivered; she touched his face. “But why can’t we, Daddy? Why can’t we build him a shelter?”

There was a pause, a slow silence, and the question hung in the air, heavy with hope. For a single moment, the belief transferred from daughter to father, that it really was that simple, that we could just build a single shelter for a single man. “It’s true,” he said, “why can’t we?” And in that moment, a whole world was reimagined, a whole world saved.

In the end, though, we did not build the shelter. We convinced Olivia to bring dinner instead. She packed it with her older sister Lucy — challah sandwiches with extra jelly and no crust, goldfish because everyone likes them, a perfectly-ripe banana, crunchy carrots, a yogurt drink, six napkins, an icy water, and a handwritten note with rainbow stickers. And off they went into the night to find the man who needed shelter but would get dinner instead.

“His name was David,” Olivia reported when she returned. “He did a handshake. He had a happy smile and a backpack like me.”

Lucy, slightly older, reassured her, “David had nice shoes and a cozy coat. He didn’t look cold. Remember what he said, Livi? Remember? He said ‘God bless you both.’ It means the same as I love you. Remember Livi?”

That night, when I put Olivia to bed, I stayed with her and watched her drift to sleep. Eyes closed, half dreaming, she reached for my hand. “Mama,” she murmured, “don’t worry, David is going to sleep in the church tonight. He’ll sleep in the church. You know, the one on the corner on the way to school. I’m definite about it. He’ll sleep in the church.”

I drive by that church twice a day. Each time I think about David who isn’t there, who isn’t sleeping safely inside this church or any other, who isn’t sleeping in the shelter we never built and who doesn’t live in Olivia’s world but the real one that isn’t kind, in an America that isn’t his and maybe never was.

I drive by that church twice a day, and I think of Olivia, and wonder how I can, when a situation like this arises again, both protect her and empower her? How can I help her hold on to her stubborn empathy and turn it to restorative action? So, on one drive home from school months later, with the church in my rearview mirror, I tell her that oft-repeated story Rabbi Wolpe tells of a man who once stood before God, his heart breaking from the pain and injustice in the world. “‘Dear God,’ he cried out, ‘look at all the suffering, the anguish and distress in the world. Why don’t you send help?’ God responded, ‘I did send help. I sent you.’”

“So when should we start?” She asks, without missing a beat, her eyes meeting mine in the mirror. “When can we build the shelter for David?”

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.” 

Israelis bordering gaza told to stay near shelters

Israeli authorities warned residents of areas bordering the Gaza Strip to keep within 15 seconds access of shelters.

Israel radio announced the warning at the top of its news hour on afternoon Friday, citing concerns about the possibility of rocket attacks from Gaza.

Eight members of the Levi family adjust to rockets in Ashkelon

ASHKELON, Israel (JTA) — Another rocket warning siren wails and eight members of the Levi family, including a grandmother and a newborn baby, quickly cram into the small bedroom made of reinforced concrete that serves as the family’s bomb shelter.

“Come on, come on! Get in!” they shout. Just before the heavy metal door slams shut, the family dog, Pick, quickly is whisked inside.

Standing shoulder to shoulder, they listen as the sound of the siren’s wail trails off, replaced by the thud of the rocket landing. Returning to the television news a few minutes later, they see it has landed a few blocks away at a local soccer stadium.

Earlier in the day, another rocket landed much closer — just across the street.

The Grad-type missile hit a construction site, killing Hani el Mahdi, a 27-year old construction worker from a Bedouin town in the Negev, and injured several other workers at the scene, some of them seriously.

“After hearing the boom this morning I’m just not myself,” said Geula Levi, 50, whose house quickly filled up with family members. “I’ve been trying to make lunch but I simply can’t seem to get anything together.”

Since the fighting began over the weekend, two of Levi’s adult children have moved back in, one of them bringing his wife and their 2-month-old daughter. The baby never leaves the reinforced room. Her mother, Vered, ventures out only to get food from the kitchen.

About 60 rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel on Monday. Many landed in Ashkelon, about 10 miles north of the Gaza Strip. Some reached as far as Ashdod, some 20 miles from Gaza, killing one woman as she bolted her car to take cover at a bus stop.

This week marks the first time these two major coastal cities have been subject to ongoing rocket barrages from Gaza. Ashkelon, home to some 120,000 people, had been targeted before, but hit only rarely. Ashdod had been considered out of range of Gaza’s rocket fire, but Hamas’ newly imported missiles — thought to be smuggled into the strip from Egypt during the six-month cease-fire that officially ended Dec. 19 — have increased the range of Gaza’s rockets.

Geula Levi said she was fully supportive of the army’s operation in Gaza, which by late Monday had killed 350 Palestinians in Gaza, most of them Hamas militiamen, according to reports.

“They learned their lessons from the Second Lebanon War so I think this time things will be conducted more intelligently,” she said of Israel’s military leaders.

“We’d rather suffer with the missiles now than become like Kiryat Shemona, which suffered for years,” said her eldest son, Avichai, 27.

Outside, the sound of Israeli artillery being fired into Gaza echoed in the streets, which were quiet and mostly empty. Staring out into the eerie emptiness were campaign posters for the upcoming election, including a billboard with a photograph of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni next to the words, “The courage to say the truth.”

Livni’s party, along with those of her main rivals, canceled campaign events scheduled for this week.

At the entrance to Ashkelon, one of those rivals, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the architect of the Israeli strike on Gaza, had his own image up on a billboard with the slogan “Looking truth in the face.”

For the people of Ashkelon, who are living their leaders’ “truths,” there was stoicism mixed with fear.

“It is miserable but it will go on for a while,” said Capt. David Biton, the police commander who oversees the southern district that includes half a million people and stretches from Ashdod to Sderot — all now within range of Gaza’s rockets.

Galit Ben-Asher Yonah, 37, said it was “the shock of my life” to discover that her home in Gan Yavne, a bedroom community near Ashdod, now has come under attack.

Gan Yavne was hit for the first time Sunday, and two more rockets fell Monday. It is the farthest point north that the rockets have reached to date.

Yonah, originally from Los Angeles, is the mother of two young daughters and a newborn son. She says she will be keeping all her children at home for the next few days.

“Never in my life did I think I would have to explain to my 5-year-old that we have to go to the basement because a bomb was falling,” she said. “And there she was guiding me, telling me to cover my head with my hands and stay away from the window as she was taught in nursery school.”

Tal, her 5-year-old, also brought down a snack of bananas and cookies for them after the first rocket fell, telling her in a serious but calm voice that they might be sitting in the basement, which is reinforced against rockets, for a while.

In nearby Nitzan, where many of the families who were evicted three years ago from the Gush Katif settlement bloc in Gaza live in temporary homes, there are no protective rooms to which to flee.

“We left the Kasssam rockets to get Katyushas instead,” said Yuval Nefesh, 41, referring to the longer-range Katyusha rockets now striking Israel from Gaza. Before, Palestinians relied almost exclusively on the Kassam, a crude rocket with a range of 10 miles and poor accuracy.

He shrugs when asked how the people are coping. “We pray,” he said.

Nefesh is still in touch with some of the Palestinians from Gaza he met while living there, and he said he has been talking to them by phone since the Israeli air assault began.

Outside, the Elikum Shwarma and Kebab restaurant was one of the few bustling businesses in Ashkelon on Monday. Delivery people were busy ferrying orders to the thousands of people staying indoors.

Avi Zarad, working the cash register, tried to maintain a cheerful atmosphere.

“We can’t send out a message of being stressed out,” he said. A few minutes later a siren sounded and, with no shelter to run to, the customers continued eating calmly.

The soccer stadium where a rocket fell an hour earlier is just across the road.

“We are getting used to it, but it’s a horrible reality,” said Kinneret Cohen, a restaurant worker preparing salads in the kitchen. “We just breathe deeply knowing we have to give the army time to do its work.”

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.

Their Spirit Survives

It was hard to be in Los Angeles in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, perhaps the biggest natural disaster in our history. I had some previous Red Cross training, and, with some additional fast-track prep on disaster response, I was on my way to Louisiana — first by plane to Houston, then by car to Baton Rouge.

Lodging on one of the first nights was the floor of a church gymnasium. At times, I felt like I was part of a sad “Amazing Race,” hurrying throughout Louisiana to provide some assistance to some of Katrina’s victims.

Then, when teamed with a fellow mental health professional from Utah, I felt like a modern-day civil rights’ worker, driving through such small towns as Bunkie, Mansura and finally to Marksville, La. Marksville, in the heart of Avoyelles Parish in central Louisiana, hardly has a downtown. There’s a WalMart and two gaming casinos — one on Indian property — on the neighboring highway.

As the first on-site Red Cross volunteer workers in the Marksville area, we had to do some of everything. Initially, we checked on several local shelters to make sure the needs of evacuees were being met. Then, we were able to concentrate on our main focus — to provide counseling to the hundreds of displaced families from New Orleans and surrounding communities who were staying in these shelters.

Most of those staying at the local shelter were extremely poor, and were so even before the hurricane. Some literally had no money, no place to go, with all their belongings in a box by their cot.

Many originally had no idea of the magnitude of the disaster. When they left their homes — and some only did so reluctantly — they believed that they would be able to return after two or three days.

One tearful older couple blamed themselves for taking only the family truck and little else. Most were dealing with shock, loss, sadness and gradually with the reality of the magnitude of the situation and what to do next. This reality was accentuated when families were encouraged to register their children for school in the cities where they were sheltered.

One wonderful lady had recently retired to take care of her elderly mother. Now she has no home — and no city.

“I thought I had the rest of my life all planned out and quite well,” she told me. “Now I have to start all over again. And I don’t even know where I am going to end up living.”

One man I met was more concerned about finding a place for his two dogs than for himself.

Some evacuees expressed frustration and anxiety over the slowness in getting FEMA-type assistance, but they seemed more universally outraged at the looters who further destroyed their homes and terrorized their city. Instead of waiting for government assistance, many of these storm victims have already begun trying to find housing and jobs. They are striving, as quickly as possible, to leave the shelter and become self-sufficient again.

I was struck by an incredibly strong sense of family — this included the sadness of not knowing whether loved ones were still alive, and the struggle to reunite with loved ones who sometimes ended up at shelters in different states. I also couldn’t help but notice that some young mothers were little more than children themselves.

The outpouring of support from the people of central Louisiana to maintain these shelters is heartwarming and even amazing. They know the true meaning of tzedakah (charitable giving).

I met one dentist and his wife who were working day and night to tend to almost 200 shelter residents, even though they both have full-time jobs. One minister in Tennessee contacted a shelter and offered to sponsor two or three families, letting them live with or near his family as he helped them get jobs.

With the help of local citizens, these shelters have become full-functioning communities almost overnight. One shelter took an empty warehouse and turned it into a temporary home for almost 450 people.

There are doctors and nurses who come in on a daily basis to tend to medical needs and provide medications. Barbers and beauticians provide haircuts, children get trips to the zoo and adults are ferried to the library.

I was struck by the resilience and indomitable spirit of the shelter residents. One woman who works full time at the shelter was herself displaced from her home in New Orleans and was trying to locate her husband. When I asked who was helping her, she just smiled and said that she wanted to help others first.

“The Lord will take care of me,” she said.

So many of the homeless echoed the confident faith of these words. So many say they feel blessed that their lives were spared.

“They’re going to build a better New Orleans,” one man said.

People are making do with humor and hugs. At one point, I pulled up an aluminum chair to sit near a woman’s cot.

“This is my office,” I told her.

“And this is my house,” she replied with a twinkle.

These hard-pressed people face many trying months, but they showed me they have the strength and determination to rebuild their lives.

Richard Sherman, a clinical and consulting psychologist in Tarzana, is president of the L.A. chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition and past president of the L.A. County Psychological Association.


First Person – Hatikvah in the Village

If someone had turned on the radio in Mulukuku, Nicaragua, on May 28, 2005, they would have heard “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem. There is no Jewish community in this village of 7,000. In fact, there is not normally even a single Jew. But for one week at the end of May, there were 14 of us.

Our group was in the most impoverished region of Nicaragua as part of a joint project between The Jewish Federation and American Jewish World Service. The goal: to help alleviate poverty, hunger and disease among all the people of the world. It was an imperative that I took very seriously, and one that compelled me to step out of my Los Angeles life of privilege and material comfort into a world where those two terms are largely devoid of meaning.

Arriving in Mulukuku shocked my system in every conceivable way. It was swelteringly hot. There was no running water, only a well for drinking and cooking, buckets of rainwater for bathing, and a river for laundry. The sole means of garbage disposal was burning — a method we soon discovered was as dangerous as it was primitive, when one of the villagers was scorched by a combustible piece of plastic.

We drove five hours from the country’s capital. As I emerged, hot and sweaty, I felt a surge of adrenaline, of power. I was here to help, and, clearly, I thought, my help was desperately needed.

I was soon to find out how wrong I was.

Our group was hosted by Cooperativa Maria Luisa Ortiz, a grass-roots endeavor providing free health services, legal aid and domestic violence shelter to the community’s women and children. In a society where girls typically get pregnant at age 14, where spousal abuse is commonplace and where the resources to deal with these issues are scarce, the Cooperativa is a bastion of support.

Our volunteer work was to consist of two projects: the smaller, to paint several rooms in the compound and rustproof a security fence; the larger, to fortify the retaining walls of the clinic’s herbal medicine garden in order to prevent the plant beds from collapsing.

I was excited, enthusiastic to finally put to practice my belief in healing the world — with my own two hands. On some days, the work was near backbreaking. But more troubling than my physical exhaustion was a nagging sense that the people benefiting most from our work were not the villagers themselves, but us, the volunteers.

The first day in the garden, the agronomist instructed us how to properly dig a trench to accommodate a row of large concrete slabs that needed to be erected. Because we were used to working with our minds, and not our hands, we did it wrong.

By day two, we had mastered the task, but worked constantly under the guidance of the locals, who were experts in agriculture, but simply lacked the manpower to do the work as quickly. As I dug into the parched soil with the edge of my spade, I felt myself chipping away at all the stereotypes I held of the developing world.

I went to Nicaragua thinking I could make a difference in the lives of those I met. I like to think that, in some way, I did. But now I know that the major transformation this trip sparked was not in the villagers, but in myself.

I joined this mission because I had an innate sense of obligation. Before I left, the people of Mulukuku were the faceless recipients of my personal need to foster social justice. Soon, though, I learned people’s names, heard their laughter, looked into their eyes. Natalie has beautiful, precocious twin daughters. Michael has the curious, adventurous spirit of a child. Noel has the charisma of a politician. That’s when I realized — poverty is not the face of a stranger, but the face of a friend.

Now that I am back in Los Angeles, I feel a new sense of obligation to help others personalize a typically anonymous epidemic, to see themselves reflected in the eyes of someone less fortunate.

On May 28, 2005, our group was invited to appear on Mulukuku’s sole radio station. The host asked us to choose several songs to sing. Without hesitation, we included “Hatikvah.” We were all proud that our Jewish values had led us to this village, had motivated us to look beyond ourselves, had instilled in us a sense of moral duty. As our voices rang out through the static of radios all over the village, I thought of the likelihood that the Israeli national anthem be broadcast in Nicaragua, and smiled. Anything is possible.

Keren Markuze is a television writer and producer in Los Angeles.