This post includes interviews with members of the Skid Row Housing Trust’s inaugural Resident Ambassador’s program (2011). It is the third post in a series called Where HOPE Meets HOME, documenting life beyond downtown L.A.’s Skid Row.
I recently met three of the Skid Row Housing Trust’s inaugural Resident Ambassadors class for 2011: Theresa Winkler, Greg Williams, and Paul Mitchell. Their resilient stories of triumph in the face of inordinate challenge provide urban planners and architects a glimpse into human dynamics of permanent supportive housing, a rare but effective and holistic model for eradicating homelessness. Moving beyond notable design, permanent supportive housing includes policies and programs that help formerly homeless residents regain the courage they need to resume healthy and happy lives. These Resident Ambassadors quickly became some of my newest heroes and may very well become some of yours’.
Theresa has been a resident of the Trust’s Abbey Apartments for four years. A former prostitute and drug addict, Theresa lived on the streets for over 25 years prior to finding comfort and compassion at the Abbey. Today Theresa is a prolific poet and a Resident Ambassador. She is proud to be clean, healthy, and in a very supportive relationship. Theresa credits the Trust’s permanent supportive housing model for saving her life.
“To the old parable, home is where the heart is. It is where my home is today because I lived on the streets for 25 years as a prostitute and a drug addict and I am now in my fifth year of recovery. I’ve never been happier in my life. I have a good solid relationship with a very good person and Skid Row Housing Trust has helped changed my life.”
Theresa talks about the changes she has noticed in Skid Row. She comments that the streets are not only cleaner, but that more people are getting off the street. She talks about the Trust’s registration process and appreciates the trusting relationship she has developed with her case manager, neighbors, and friends at The Abbey. Theresa participates in many of The Abbey’s programs, including the creative writing workshop and religious fellowship. Her service as a Resident Ambassador provides a very important and rewarding opportunity to share her story, especially with young women.
Greg has lived at the Trust’s Boyd Hotel for over six years. He had been married and steadily employed until 2001, when he suffered a serious workplace injury that let him both disabled and homeless. Having grown up with two parents in the Compton and Carson communities of Los Angeles, Greg had never expected to be homeless. Nonetheless, Greg’s chronic homelessness left him with few options, especially in Riverside, California, a region that discouraged homeless activity.
Greg soon learned that about a law that protected anyone staying in an emergency room. He spent the next three years living in the ER of the Riverside Community Hospital, cleaning-up in a public bathroom and sleeping upright in a chair. Greg made his way to Los Angeles after a New York-based friend informed him about L.A.’s Skid Row services and housing opportunities. He spent several weeks at the Weingart Center before finding the Skid Row Housing Trust.
“The meaning of home to me – and this has always been to me – is where I know I’m going to be where I’m not living temporarily because I’ve lived in a lot of temporary situations and nowhere did I feel that that was home. I’ve lived in shelters, on people’s couches, and on people’s floors, and it never felt like home. So I know the difference between just being somewhere and home. Home is where you feel comfortable. Home is somewhere if you have difficulties with things – like me for instance – before I got a home and I call it home here – they call it housing but I call it more or less a home because I feel comfortable where I am now. Before I moved into the unit I am in – the Skid Row Housing unit I’m in which is the Boyd Hotel – I lived at the Weingart. The Weingart is a place where you can stay for two weeks and they would encourage you to save the little money that you had to move out and move into a place. But even though it was very nice and the people were very nice – I didn’t feel it was home because I had a limited time to stay there. I didn’t really feel like it was home. Once again, I will elaborate, a home is somewhere you feel confident that you’re going to be there – permanently. And somewhere you will feel comfortable being there.“
Greg talks about life at the Boyd, from his close friends and neighbors to the challenges that come with sharing a communal bathroom and shower. He reflects upon feeling invisible at times, feelings that led to his former drug use and alcoholism. And while living at the Boyd has improved his self-esteem, Greg is ready to move on into his own apartment (outside of the Trust’s facilities). He concludes his interview by talking about life with bi-polar disorder and the value of having a roof – a place to rest, reflect, plan a new future, and to be safe.
Paul is an artist who has resided at the Trust’s Olympia Hotel for about a year. Paul was homeless for over 20 years prior to being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He divided his time between his native Seattle and Oakland before moving to Los Angeles. “I was on the streets, sometimes I lived behind buildings, sometimes I slept on the bus. Most of the time I slept on my truck. There was a pool at the park where I could get up early in the morning and take a shower and go to work. I did that for about five years, but I lived for like that (off and on) for about 20 years, not always understanding why I was always homeless and out of a job.”
“Home for me is just someplace that’s safe and someplace that’s warm and some place that has the smells of home like food and Christmas Trees.”
Paul talks about his favorite elements of living at the Olympia. He credits the Trust for improving his life and helping his discover other parts of his artistic talents. Paul also shares his personal connection and friendship with Tasha, a homeless woman he tried to assist. Despite his and the Trust’s efforts, Tasha died on Skid Row. He concludes his interview by sharing his general thoughts about the Trust’s work and the value of permanent supportive housing. Beyond a physical home, Paul says that love and care are fundamental elements for eradicating homelessness.
Apart from the common struggles of homelessness and life on L.A.’s Skid Row, Theresa, Greg, Paul, and several others are bonded by their shared experience and service as the Trust’s Resident Ambassadors. In 2011, the Trust established a new program to train current residents in storytelling and public speaking with a three-fold mission: 1) To build self-esteem among the residents; 2) To appoint advocates who can support other residents and address their issues with the Trust’s staff; and 3) To help currently homeless people find their way to the Trust.
Greg states that his service as a Resident Ambassador makes him feel respected and appreciated. Theresa likens the Resident Ambassadors to advocates. Paul shares that homeless people need guidance. A helping hand can go very far in giving hope to someone who feels hopeless and lives on the street.
I ask the Ambassadors to share more about the government programs that support them, including General Relief and Social Security. Paul explains that everyone is given $221 in cash, in addition to a voucher card they can use to buy food at select federal government sponsored stores. Theresa talks about her own struggles with the system and the importance of having medical, health, and legal services available in her building. Theresa suffers from epilepsy and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and recently needed legal services to champion her right to keep her Social Security benefits.
The stories of the Trust’s inaugural Resident Ambassadors have spread far beyond the confines of the Trust’s offices and residential properties. On November 9, 2011 the Trust hosted the Story Teller’s Celebration and Resident Ambassador (2011) Graduation at The Last Bookstore in Downtown L.A. Twelve Trust residents (including Theresa, Paul, and Greg) each spoke about their lives – both before and after finding the Trust.
For Trust staff, the night’s event, and Resident Ambassador’s program in general, is a way to give a voice to otherwise silenced and ignored members of society. You can read more in Formerly homeless, they know of where they speak, a recent L.A. Times article profile about the event.
Although it’s only been a few months that I’ve interacted with Trust staff and residents, their powerful stories of challenge and triumph have already deeply influenced my own hopes for improving society, one life at a time.
Click to read more notable quotes from my interview with Theresa, Greg, and Paul.
Post by John Arroyo.