The coronavirus threatens those who need care the most and strains networks providing help
Last week, I wrote about two individuals in their 60s, Mary and Michael, on their hunt for housing. With their age and health problems, it’s not easy for them to find housing with their subsidized housing vouchers, especially in an expensive city such as Los Angeles. Only about half of the people in the Section 8 program in Los Angeles manage to sign a lease. The other half lose their vouchers because they don’t find a place to stay within the required time.
Well, happy surprises sometimes happen: Mary found housing! Within two weeks of her housing search, she had signed a lease in East Hollywood. “I have the keys!” she declared on her Facebook page. “I am officially NOT HOMELESS!”
I visited her at her new home soon after. It’s a studio on the first floor of a two-story white building on the corner of a residential street next to a Taco Bell, some Korean eateries, and a cannabis shop. “Welcome to my home!” she exclaimed as she opened the door for me, beaming at the simple fact that for the first time in a while, she was the one greeting visitors at the door—her door.
Her apartment isn’t a very nice place by the typical privileged American’s standards. With no AC, the indoor temperature stagnated at a tropical 85 degrees when I visited. Her floors are covered with a cheap, sticky material and need constant mopping and dusting to keep clean. The kitchen has no garbage disposal, the toilet is old, and all the cabinets are made of painted wood that chips easily. This is the kind of housing that $1,229 (Mary’s monthly rent) will get you in Los Angeles these days.
But none of those flaws mattered much to the proud new tenant. In her eyes, everything about this studio was gorgeous. As she gave me a brief tour, she grinned the whole time, giddy with disbelief that she had a place called home.
“This is my home,” she cried. “I don’t have to share it with anybody!” She lifted her arms and twirled like a little girl showing off her new frock. “Look, I can do this in my kitchen,” she exclaimed, “and not touch a … thing!” She widened her eyes: “Most people can’t. Kitchens these days are minuscule!” Then, with her house key hanging on a lanyard around her wrist, she pumped both hands into the air and yelled, “I’m free!”
Knowing Mary’s story, I understood what “I’m free!” meant: It was almost exactly two years ago that she fled her ex-boyfriend’s apartment in downtown LA. He was addicted to prescription drugs, she said, and she was getting sick of his inability to kick his addiction. When she tried to leave him, she said, he grabbed her by the neck, dragged her into a closet, and tried to choke her. As a survivor of multiple rapes, she wasn’t about to endure any more abuse from a man—so she bloodied his nose and ran out. She then lived on the streets until some people who saw her with her walker alerted city officials and didn’t stop making noise until an outreach team secured her a bed at a shelter. In the homeless realm, a little citizen advocacy can make a big difference.
Some people say they enjoy the “freedom” of living on the streets (at least temporarily). But nothing about Mary’s 16 months of street life felt like “freedom” to her. She was constantly afraid of abuse, robbery, or worse, so she carried a can of pepper spray and a metal stick wherever she went. Under city rules, she had to wake up before sunrise to fold her tent or risk fines from the police, and she wasn’t allowed to set up her tent until sundown. One night, a drunk driver charged his car into the alleyway where she and some homeless friends were sleeping and ran over a young man beside her. She tried to resuscitate him, but his blood filled her mouth—he was already dead.
Trauma shoves people into homelessness, but homelessness itself presents fresh episodes of trauma. Nobody who’s experienced chronic homelessness escapes it unscathed.
Trauma shoves people into homelessness, but homelessness itself presents fresh episodes of trauma. Nobody who’s experienced chronic homelessness escapes it unscathed. So when I saw Mary so joyfully declaring herself “free,” I felt giddy with happiness for her as well.
When I first visited Mary, all she had was a queen-size air mattress, a wooden corner table on the verge of breaking apart, a framed Van Gogh poster she got as a gift from a shelter, and a TV she bought for $200 on Craigslist. The next time I visited her, my boyfriend David and I brought her a pile of stuff, thanks to the generous donations of friends: Swiffer cloths, a desk, a swivel chair, a night table, clothes hangers, a toilet brush, lotion, Tupperware, mugs, and bags of groceries.
Here’s something I’ve witnessed constantly about members of our local community: They genuinely want to help the homeless. But with 60,000 homeless individuals in our city, they just don’t know how to start, or who to help. All it takes is someone befriending an individual on the streets and telling her story on social media, and people’s hearts swell with the desire to give, feeling relief that there’s some concrete way they can help. Within a day of announcing Mary’s new home on Facebook, my boyfriend had raised $325 through friends.
That $325 is significantly less than what the government gives her through housing assistance, but somehow it meant so much more to Mary because of all the real faces attached to it. When she saw the outpouring of people’s generosity on Facebook, she cried. Days later, she was still crying at the thought of it. The government helps Mary pay for housing, but it takes a community to touch her heart.
I knew Mary had fallen away from the Christian faith of her childhood, so I used this opportunity to remind her, “Aw, you see that God cares for you!”
She replied, “Ever since I met you and David, I’ve felt the love of not just God, but those He brought into my life.” Then she said, “I've been a Christian most of my life. I just got lost in the moment. You helped to remind me that love is all around me.”
Please pray for Mary. Her journey out of homelessness and into true, lasting freedom may just be beginning.