Bonnie Litowski doesn’t like public speaking, but on Feb. 21, she stood behind a podium and told her story at the Trudy and Norman Louis Valley Shelter in San Fernando Valley.
Her speech lasted just five minutes, but her story was nearly 30 years in the making. In 1986, Litowski, her then-husband and her two sons, then 1 and 7, were homeless.
Homelessness was a far-fetched concept to the Sherman Oaks native, who’d been raised in a middle-class Jewish family. “I never thought anything like this would ever happen to me,” she later told the Journal. But she found herself in that exact situation, addicted to drugs with nowhere to sleep.
“Not only was I homeless, but homeless with a family of four,” she told the Sunday afternoon gathering of about 65 people, who had come to celebrate the shelter’s imminent closing after three decades of operation. Litowski and her family had once found a temporary, 30-day residence at the shelter, allowing her to land a full-time, minimum-wage job at Salvation Army. Although it took a few years to eventually get her life fully back in order, her stay at the shelter served as a wake-up call.
These days, Litowski serves on the board of directors for L.A. Family Housing, the organization that runs the shelter that changed her life when she was down. It was the first homeless shelter to open in the San Fernando Valley.
“It’s one of the best things that ever happened to me,” she said of her metamorphosis.
Shelter is a critical part of life, she said. “My home, for me, is positively my sanctuary. It is my refuge from everything.” Litowski, 57, now lives in Sherman Oaks in a one-bedroom apartment. “Everybody deserves their own place in the world,” she said.
Litowski is just one of thousands impacted by this former hotel-turned-shelter on Lankershim Boulevard, which houses 250 to 275 people at a time. Two other one-time residents, Sophia Martinez and Cookie Katz, also shared their experiences at the event through tearful recollections. Martinez’s case manager sent her to the Valley shelter, where she was a resident until she could get her own one-bedroom apartment in Chatsworth. “It took me three years to get what I wanted,” she said.
Katz, who served as a case manager for 10 years, also found herself on the wrong side of the desk when she, too, became homeless. She’s been a resident for three months, previously living on the street for six months. “Being a homeless woman is more common than you would think,” Katz told the packed room. “But I am so grateful that this place was here.”
It was founded in 1984 by the Valley Interfaith Council (VIC), then chaired by Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben of Kehillat Israel in the Pacific Palisades. VIC bought the broken-down Fiesta Motel and converted it into Valley Shelter in an attempt to combat the growing epidemic of homelessness in San Fernando Valley at the time. Because there were no other shelters in the Valley, homeless families were given motel vouchers for temporary use. In 1986, the VIC helped merge Valley Shelter with L.A. Family Housing, increasing available social services in the process, including a health clinic, an administrative office and a second housing unit. L.A. Family Housing now owns and operates 23 properties across the city.