In writing this series of posts on the New Carver Apartments on L.A.’s skid row, I have grappled with my own pre-determined notions of how to eradicate homelessness. Like many, especially as an outsider to the field of homeless advocacy, I thought adequate housing would be the most feasible solution. In retrospect, I can now see the holes in my logic.
Ray’s celebrated linocut depicting the New Carver as “a spaceship.” The Skid Row Housing Trust used it as a promotion image in 2010.
Over the last few months the stories of formerly homeless individuals and the people who advocate and care for them have taught me otherwise. While having a home provides safety, comfort, and security, it is only the first – albeit the most critical – step on a person’s path to recovery. Additional programs focused on mental, physical, spiritual, and financial health are equally integral elements that aid in the recovery process. This is what permanent supportive housing is all about.
The Skid Row Housing Trust is comprised of a staff of over 140 people that work in one of two general settings: 1) the main office or 2) on-site as staff members of one of the Trust’s 22 residential facilities. Within each facility is a program manager, several resident service coordinators/case workers, and other experts (artists, health professionals, et cetera) who oversee the day-to-day operations of the facilities and protect the general welfare of the residents who inhabit them. Without these staff members, the Trust’s permanent supportive housing goals would lack the care, compassion, and dedication that separate it from traditional housing models. It is for this reason that housing movement is both “permanent” and “supportive.”
I recently spent time with various Trust staff members: core staff at headquarters and on-site program staff at the New Carver. I invite you to learn about a few staff member’s definition of “home.”
“Home is the place from which you encounter the world. It’s your safe place, your unique place. It’s the place you take pride in.” ~ Mike Alvidrez, Executive Director
“Home is a state of mind…You can’t begin to pick-up the pieces until you have somewhere to put them.“ ~ Patryk S., Marketing and Tour Coordinator
“I used to think it was place-based, I used to think it was the city I grew up in, but after moving around, I realize it’s where I feel safest. Where my dear loved ones are or the place where I feel I have control over what’s going on – where I feel protected.”
“I think design really helps create memories associated with home. It stands out, rather than receding into the background. It becomes a little more active in defining your everyday. The more it can do to become a time-marker or landmark for you is always important because it creates a permanence of your existence.”
~Theresa Hwang, Community Designer/Enterprise Rose Fellow
“Home is a place where you feel welcomed and secure…The first thing that we have to do before we even start the work of recovering from whatever various issues people are dealing with is to provide a safe, secure environment…” ~ Ann English, Program Manager—New Carver Apartments
Tara Minassian talks about her work as a Resident Service Coordinator for the New Carver Apartments.
“Home is safety.” ~ Tara Manassian, Resident Service Coordinator
“Home is the idea of a place that is safe, most importantly, and where a person feels comfortable…and a place where you can rest…” ~ Krista Zabor, Resident Service Coordinator
“Home is a state of mind…Home is a right (every human being should have a right to a home).” ~ Juan Rosillo, Artist (printmaker and sculptor)
“Safety,” “security,” and “comfort” were threads common to each response. As Krista mentioned, residents often need a place to collect themselves before they can process the trauma and challenges posed by their life on the streets.
Apart from individual sessions with the Resident Service Coordinators (Case Workers), each New Carver resident is welcome to freely participate in various weekly and monthly programs. These include the Friday afternoon Games Group, the Wednesday morning Art Group, the Thursday morning Yoga/Meditation Group, and the monthly Gardening Group. Residents also attend weekly Resident’s Meeting to discuss facility issues, recommend programming changes, or celebrate triumphs, including goal achievement and birthdays. Last month New Carver staff invited me to attend (and participate in!) a few of their program sessions.
• Games Group (Friday afternoons)
The New Carver’s Friday afternoon Games Group includes regulars like Shannon, Charles, Ray, and Steve. During the course of one particular session Shannon and Charles define home over a series of domino games. While Shannon and Charles no longer live at the New Carver (they recently moved in to their own places), Tara encourages present and former residents to maintain their connection to the New Carver family.
Krista and Tara share special memories about opening the New Carver on Christmas Eve, 2008. Charles talks about Monday Night Bingo and about the new Religious Fellowship group. Although he admits that his past experience has showed him that he’s not good at meeting goals, he credits his time at the New Carver for dramatically improving his self-esteem. Once hesitant about moving out on his own, he now realizes that it’s part of the process. “Tara was my case manager, but really, I’ll see anyone,” said Charles.
At the New Carver, signs for “Walk In Hours” are often just a formality. Tara and Krista understand this, but rely on each resident to help their neighbors. Ann encapsulated the crux of the conversation by stating: “The community part of it is most important. People that engage and become a community, become a family…learning how to connect again and trust and build relationships, that’s something that sustains you wherever you are.”
I realize that my memory of how to play (and score) dominos is foggy. I observe Ray, Shannon, Charles, and Steve play a game; they talk me into keeping score. “Home is where the dominos are,” proclaimed Ann.
• Art Group (Wednesday mornings)
New Carver residents appreciate spending time with Juan Rosillo, a Colombian artist (painter and sculptor) who teaches the Wednesday morning Art Group. Apart from being a talented artist, Juan is a neighbor who has maintained a gallery across the street from the New Carver for over 30 years. He dedication to the Trust and its residents brings him to the New Carver to weekly teach art workshops.
Juan and Oscar discuss color options for their Oscar’s sculpture.
In this segment, Juan teaches ray about employing “reduction” effect in his linocuts (Juan references the process in some of Pablo Picasso’s popular works). I ask Ray about his previous linocuts, including a piece about the mystical “flower of life” and the “spaceship” poster he created for a recent block party. “When I first got here the space was reminiscent of a circle with a yellow spaceship,” said Ray. Fortunately, Ray has offered to give me a copy.
I spend some time with Oscar, a professionally trained artist from Guatemala. Listen to him talk about an aluminum sculptural piece adorned with a festive color scheme.
Juan credits the New Carver for bringing positive neighborhood changes. “When I moved here – the back of the street, this dead end street – was full of mattresses and trash, for months. After a year it changed, it changed completely.”
• Yoga/Meditation Group (Thursday mornings)
Krista teaches the Thursday yoga/meditation group. I had only planned to stay for a bit, but Ray and Steve talked me in to staying for the entire session. In this segment Krista concludes the session by having us repeat: “May I be peaceful and at ease. May I be healthy and well.”
Ray asks Krista how to practice the “half-moon” stretch.
• Gardening Group (Monthly)
I met Al, Edmundo, and Daphne at the Gardening group last November. Daphne tells me she’s from California; Edmundo talks to me about his Spanish rock band in Mexico and L.A.; Al instructs us from the balcony. While we talk, Linda (another New Carver Resident) brings us a Thanksgiving Day gift: Money. Although green, money was not in the form of legal tender. Money was a plant. We spend some time looking for a prominent place to display Money.
New Carver resident Linda offers “Money,” a plant she asks Krista (Resident Service Coordinator) to plant in the building’s open-air courtyard.
• Weekly Resident Meetings
During this particular meeting, Gloria and two others residents announce their plans to move. “I’m really going to miss it here, If it wasn’t for me knowing that I have to move on, that this is a stepping stone, I would stay here,” said Gloria. Ann reminds everyone that they can stay or return, whenever they need. Another resident expresses joy in moving: “I’m ready to move on…I’m going to have my own furniture – I’m so excited. I’m going to miss this place, but I’m on my own!” The meeting ends with a DVD raffle and the celebration of several birthdays.
The Trust also programs additional public community events, apart from site-specific programs at the New Carver or other residential facilities. These events help inform the general public about the Trust’s work and progress in the permanent supportive housing movement. Examples of programs include their semi-annual Community Supper (I served on the Host Committee for the November 2011 supper) and annual Block Party.
A waitress takes my table’s order at the Community Supper on November 15, 2011.
Cheryl and Vanessa, two Trust board members, conclude the evening with powerful and inspirational words.
A few weeks ago I interviewed my mom for a project about my family history. While I was aware of my family’s early poverty, immigration struggles, and near homelessness while living in Tijuana, I hadn’t realized how much our stories would resonate with those of the Trust’s residents.
Over the last three months I’ve listened to powerful stories anchored by amazing transformations. And if this wasn’t enough, I also made new friends and embraced an entire community, all the while feeling welcome and safe.
I recently returned to my native Los Angeles, after three years of living in other American cities and abroad. While my experience away was rewarding and life-changing, I’ve struggled with my return to the U.S. What is my place in this world? How do I continue to feel relevant, alive, and valued?
These are the same feelings homeless people struggle with on a daily basis. Accustomed to being ignored or avoided, they carry a tremendous burden and wounded spirit.
Apart from changing me, my time away from Los Angeles also drastically altered my definition of home. I used to think that home was where I grew up, where my family lived. That was always the case for me in Los Angeles. It was the city I loved and knew the best – it was home.
Now I realize that home is not necessarily a physical place. It’s a feeling, a connection to something supported by four walls and a roof. Living in new places taught me how to thrive outside of my comfort zone: how to make new friends and experience new places. It also taught me how to let go of my preconceived notions and attachments to material objects.
Above all I realized that the largest challenge for a homeless person – or any person – isn’t really finding a home: it’s finding the courage in yourself to make a positive change in your life when necessary. That’s what home means to me.
Similar to the courtyard at the New Carver Apartments, the pathway to finding a home isn’t linear. It’s circular. It’s a cycle that relies on people, compassion, and hope.
Post by John Arroyo.