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Homeless heartbreak

Despite government and volunteer help, some people who live on the streets revert to hard-to-break habits

Homeless heartbreak

A homeless man sleeps in the Second Street Tunnel in downtown Los Angeles. (Associated Press/Photo by Reed Saxon)

LOS ANGELES—When David Herrmann first met Chris, he thought the 13-year-old boy was a typical blond kid rolling down Venice Beach Boardwalk on his skateboard. Herrmann liked Chris: The kid was polite and unassuming and always asked if he could pass out burritos and bottled water to the homeless with Herrmann and other volunteers of Share A Meal, a mobile kitchen program by the nonprofit Khalsa Peace Corps.

It wasn’t until about three months later that Chris revealed he too was homeless. When Herrmann told Chris about the sleepovers he once hosted as a teenager, the boy said: “I wish I could have sleepovers. I’ve never been able to have a friend over before.” Herrmann asked where he lived, and the boy pointed to a parking spot overlooking Venice Beach. For months, Chris, his mother Lisa, and their dog had been sleeping in a white sedan with the front seats laid back and the back seats strewn with clothes, dog hair, and toiletries.

After three years of volunteer work with the homeless, Herrmann knew enough not to be surprised, but his heart ached for the young teenager. So when a business manager of a local wealthy benefactor contacted him, Herrmann connected her with Chris and Lisa, and they met up one evening at a diner in Venice.

Over burgers and coffee, the business manager offered Chris and Lisa a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: An anonymous benefactor would temporarily pay their rent for a new place somewhere in the South Bay, where the beach air is smog-free and the quiet residential streets are clean of drug dealers and graffiti. A personalized team would coach Lisa on financial independence, while Herrmann planned to mentor Chris and invite him to movie nights and baseball games.

When Chris heard the offer, his face lit into a smile: “Really? That’s cool!” His mother’s reaction was more reserved, her expression wrinkled with conflict and bewilderment.

A few days later, Lisa called and said she’d rather stay on the streets. Pressed further, she admitted she was addicted to meth and wasn’t interested in rehab. Soon after, mother and son disappeared. Herrmann hasn’t seen them since.

Handout

David Herrmann (Handout)

If poverty is a deep hole, chronic homelessness is its dank bottom. In Los Angeles County the number of homeless spiked 23 percent last year, to 58,000. About one-third of those cases are chronic—individuals stuck in long-term or repeated homelessness, often dealing with mental illness, substance addiction, or physical disabilities. Chronic homelessness poses both a moral and economic crisis: Studies show that leaving a person chronically homeless costs taxpayers $30,000 to $50,000 per person, per year.

That realization has pushed federal and local governments to embrace a homeless assistance policy called “Housing First,” where they place people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing ASAP, and then provide voluntary supportive services as needed. This approach removes “barriers” to housing such as the need to follow sobriety rules or graduate certain programs. The idea is that stable housing improves a person’s quality of life and thus his capability to accept “less critical” services such as rehab and job training. But on-the-ground homeless advocates say the Housing First philosophy doesn’t address a key problem with many of the chronically homeless: How do you help people who don’t seem to want help?

For several months I followed people who engage with the chronically homeless in LA and witnessed evidence of a much deeper level of poverty: I saw despair and hopelessness that rob individuals of dreams and motivation. I saw how substance addictions and traumatic experiences enslave people with the belief they’ll never be more than bums. I saw an ingrained victim mentality that seeks to absolve personal responsibility. And for whatever reason, some people don’t seem to mind languishing in a state of bare-bones survival. Lisa is one such case, and her son a tragic casualty.

 

About one-third of homeless cases are chronic—individuals stuck in long-term or repeated homelessness, often dealing with mental illness, substance addiction, or physical disabilities.

SOON AFTER CHRIS AND LISA VANISHED, Lavonne appeared. (We’re using only their first names out of privacy concerns.) The moment Herrmann saw Lavonne hobbling around Third and Rose avenues, site of the largest homeless encampment in Venice, he knew she needed help—fast. She was 56 years old, alone, and carried in her limp multiple health issues, including a history of back injuries, head traumas, and a stroke.

LA was experiencing one of its coldest and wettest winters, but Lavonne had lost her tent (suspected stolen). Each frigid night, the gray-haired woman slept balled up on grimy, hard concrete. Herrmann bought blankets for Lavonne; but as he bid her good night, he heard her hacking coughs and knew she couldn’t last long on the streets.

David McNew/Getty Images

A bus passes homeless encampments in Los Angeles. (David McNew/Getty Images)

That night, Herrmann contacted Steven and Regina Weller, chaplains and pastors of the nearby Venice Foursquare Church, for help. The Wellers have been serving the homeless in their neighborhood for more than 20 years, using retirement checks and local donations. Over the decades, they’ve developed close working relationships with the Los Angeles Police Department and various landlords across the LA region.

While Regina Weller rang through her phone book searching for a landlord willing to house a disabled woman of low income, Herrmann spent some $2,000 of his own money on new clothes and about 10 days of motel expenses for Lavonne. Herrmann then turned to social media to raise funds for Lavonne’s future rent and basic needs until she could procure better disability benefits. Meanwhile, Weller’s assistant, Rachel Manila, visited Lavonne several days a week to bathe, clothe, and feed her. But Lavonne couldn’t break some old habits: She panhandled for change and cigarettes, then smoked in her nonsmoking room, even though she knew it would cost Herrmann a hefty fine. When Weller found out, she gave her an earful: “You’re no longer homeless, Lavonne—stop acting like it.”

On a Saturday afternoon, I visited Lavonne at her motel. The woman who greeted me had bright blue eyes, a healthy flush to her cheeks, a sheen to her freshly washed hair, and a lucid mind. She wore an orange Gators jersey tucked into denim jeans. Her mini-fridge was stuffed with grapes, microwave dinners, and instant oatmeal, and she showed off her new clothes—petite jeans and turquoise blouses.

As we sat on Lavonne’s bed, the TV airing reruns of HGTV’s Fixer Upper, the woman told her story: Her mother died of Huntington’s disease when she was 4. Her father was a drunk who physically abused his kids, so child protective services put Lavonne in a foster home in Southern California. She earned a scholarship to college and majored in interior design. She has three children but lost custody and contact with them. Her siblings all died of Huntington’s disease. For years, she rotated between homelessness and live-in boyfriends—the last was a drunk who routinely sent her to clinics with bruises and cuts. One time, she said, he dragged her out of his car and slammed her head against the pavement. She finally left him, but still receives his constant text messages.

While Lavonne chattered, on TV Fixer Upper’s Chip and Joanna Gaines stripped down old houses and redesigned them into magazine-cover-worthy homes. Lavonne pointed and gasped: “Oh, look at that! How beautiful! I love how those colors open up the room.” She turned to me and asked: “Do you like crown molding? … I love crown molding. It adds such a touch of elegance to the room.” Momentarily distracted, Lavonne started imagining her own dream house: She would paint the rooms in greens and creams and pinks, so “everyone who steps into my house would feel so welcome and comfortable and safe.” For the first time in a long time, Lavonne was dreaming of a future beyond the streets.

But on the day Weller had planned to check Lavonne out of the motel and into her new apartment, Lavonne disappeared. The motel owner said she had checked herself out early in the morning. She left behind the food, her new clothes, her walker—everything except her sleeping bag. That was all she needed to be back on the streets.

NOT EVERY PERSON who experiences homelessness chooses to stay on the streets. Some people fight to keep off them—but lingering habits, past mistakes, and deep scars gradually drag them back. Such ghosts have haunted Jane Everett and Demetrios Georgiades (see “Homeless on the streets of LA,” April 1, 2017), even after they scored a one-bedroom apartment in Long Beach.

After months of bumming on friends’ couches and shacking on the streets, the couple told me they never wanted to go back to that life. Everett said she felt traumatized not just by the constant fear of assault or robbery but by the paralyzing dread of becoming homeless for life. “When every night you’re sleeping on concrete, it sucks the soul and motivation out of you. It’s hard to get out.”

So when Weller found housing for the couple in a sober-living facility and paid for their first three months’ rent, Everett and Georgiades promised they would do anything to stay housed. Georgiades applied to any job openings he could find online that wouldn’t delve into his felony record and found two part-time jobs as a line cook and as a busser for minimum wage ($10.50 per hour). His ultimate dream, however, was to return to his younger, rap-star days, even though that lifestyle once lured him into drug dealing and armed robbery. (“Hey, it’s Miami in the ’80s: Cubans, cocaine, guns, think Tony Montana!”)

Sipa USA via AP

The Skid Row area of downtown Los Angeles. (Sipa USA via AP)

Everett also applied for jobs, but either didn’t hear back or turned them down because they required a long commute. She eventually found a job she liked—making food deliveries on her bike—but then fell, she says, and broke her arm. She ended up back home watching TV, painting her nails, and smoking weed—the few things she says make her happy.

Each month, the couple hustled to scrounge up $1,100 for their rent. They tried selling self-designed T-shirts, traded their food stamps, borrowed money from friends, and participated in paid online surveys. Then Georgiades quit the cook job (he said his co-workers gave him attitude), and soon after got fired from his busing job (for reasons yet unclear). In late May, after a particularly bad fight between a high-strung Everett and a stressed-out Georgiades, their landlord kicked them out. They had lasted barely five months.

Last I heard, they were stationed in a motel, once again homeless. Except this time, they’ve got a minor with them: Georgiades’ teenage daughter—one of his seven scattered children—had moved out of her mother’s house in Texas to live with them. Weeks before, Georgiades muttered to me, “If I have to, I’ll sell dope again.” He wasn’t smiling, either: Worry etched his brows.

Some people fight to keep off the streets—but lingering habits, past mistakes, and deep scars gradually drag them back.

WELLER SAID SHE SEES Lavonne, Everett, and Georgiades as people on a journey, people who have tasted the temporary but sweet relief of rest and kindness. Perhaps somewhere along their journey, they will find more stable rest and love.

Since some people ultimately return to their old lives, I asked Weller if all her work was worth it. She answered with near-indignation: “Of course! These are people created in the image of God! Knitted together in their mother’s womb!” Yes, working with the homeless is messy and agonizing, she said. “There’s a reason why some people become homeless. They are difficult people, and some decide they’re not worth the time. They get annoyed with their quirks and idiosyncrasies. But they’re always worth it.”

Herrmann too doesn’t regret helping Lavonne, or regret helping Everett and Georgiades pay their rent. He added, “It’s frustrating ... but for every five bad stories, there may be one good success story.” That, he said, makes his efforts worthwhile.

Meanwhile, Weller is considering taking a break from her ministry. She’s exhausted, and when she steals rare naps, she awakens to more missed phone calls and texts from lonely, broken people seeking help. One recent afternoon, she received a call from a local hospital. A homeless man was in the intensive care unit getting a major operation after someone severed his spinal cord. All he had on him were his ID card and Weller’s chaplain card, so a nurse called asking if she knew him.

The next day, Weller and I visited the man at the ICU. He was young, with expressive eyebrows, milk-tea skin, and lean shoulders. The doctors had not yet told him he’d likely be paraplegic now. He was bleary on painkillers but opened his eyes when Weller called his name and tucked her hand into his—soft hands, cold and limp. She told him he’s in good hands, that God loves him. As she prayed out loud, the patient tried to speak through the tube in his mouth, and the machines beeped in alarm.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A homeless camp in Los Angeles. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

As we left the hospital, Weller promised the man she’d be back. After seeing him propped up in a hospital bed alone, his neck fastened with a brace, his breathing labored, and his limbs useless, she decided that despite her fatigue, she’d finish one more case well.

She had known that would happen, of course. Somehow, her heart broke easily for those deemed unworthy.

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a features reporter for WORLD Magazine. She graduated from the University of Southern California with degrees in print journalism and East Asian language and culture. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat, Shalom. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.

Comments

  •  austinbeartux's picture
    austinbeartux
    Posted: Tue, 07/11/2017 12:27 pm

    Heartbreaking.  Thank you Sophie for such a well-written article.