December 10, 2018

The Mensch List: The way home

Wendy Colman Levin spoke with quiet intensity about the people who have touched her during her four-and-a-half years as an advocate on behalf of the homeless, among them the young woman who was thrown out of her childhood home when she told her stepfather that her stepbrothers were raping her, and the middle-aged man who spiraled into street life after his wife died of cancer.

Since 2009, Levin has served as a member of the Home For Good Business Leaders Task Force on Homelessness that aims to find permanent supportive housing for the chronic and veteran homeless, among other endeavors.  

Her personal mission is to help these often invisible individuals tell their stories through the arts: For the task force, she curated an exhibition, “Faces of Homelessness,” which has been on display in more than 10 venues around Los Angeles since 2011 and is now at Encino’s Valley Beth Shalom. She’s also the co-editor of Stuart Perlman’s documentary “Struggle in Paradise,” which spotlights the homeless of Venice Beach, as well as a coach to help previously homeless people craft personal narratives about their life on the streets and beyond, through the Skid Row Housing Trust and the Corporation for Supportive Housing.

Levin is currently coaching an educated man who had lived with and cared for his mother until she died, but then, unable to continue to pay the rent, found himself sleeping in his truck. “He talks about drifting, and being lost and shocked to be in a situation he could never have imagined,” she said.

Levin — who grew up attending Stephen S. Wise Temple — first worked with the homeless during an internship while earning her doctorate in behavioral sciences and health education at UCLA in the mid-1980s. Her doctoral dissertation focused on how entertainment media can influence health-relevant beliefs and behaviors among the viewing public; it was an idea she drew upon when she joined the task force several years ago.

“I wanted to find ways to bring the issue of homelessness to the public consciousness in a way that wasn’t just informational, but was also through storytelling, because that can deliver more of an emotional impact,” she said. “And I wanted to show that these people are individuals.”

Levin came up with the idea of the exhibition while talking to Perlman, a Los Angeles psychoanalyst and artist who had begun painting vibrant portraits of the homeless denizens of Venice Beach; the inaugural exhibition in 2012 featured Perlman’s portraits as well as the work of photographer Gaelle Morand. A larger exhibition on display at the Venice Art Walk last year also included the work of sculptors, an installation artist and a documentary filmmaker.

“When we were on display in the lobby of the City National Bank in City National Plaza, a banker in a beautiful suit said to us, ‘I wonder if one of these portraits is my daughter,’ ” Levin recalled.  “And we were just weeping with her. The truth is that this isn’t the problem of ‘the other’; it involves all of us.”

In between helping to edit more than 60 hours of footage for Perlman’s documentary, Levin has also coached five previously homeless individuals as they developed monologues to help raise awareness about the issue. 

“I urge the people I work with to be as honest as they feel comfortable with in their narratives, and to go as deep as they can,” she said. “The truth is, they are tremendous success stories because of the things they have survived, and often through no fault of their own.”