Owning their pasts, students look to a future in homelessness services
Lying in bed at night, Earl Williams wondered what his future would be.
LOS ANGELES - Lying in bed at night, Earl Williams wondered what his future would be. From his top bunk, No. 133A, in the men's shelter on 38th Street in South Los Angeles, he stared up at the white rafters.
With the world out of sight, anything seemed possible - until his fears kicked in.
He prayed. He thought of his new friends. He repeated words of encouragement that had come his way, but they were sometimes hard to believe.
The men around him snored, they moaned, they whispered among themselves. Beds creaked, and the smells of weed, even meth, reached him like the tentacles from his former life. At 48, Williams felt like a football team that never won.
He curled onto his side. He adjusted his day pack, which was his pillow. It held his tablet, a change of clothes, papers. They were his most prized possessions, always nearby in case he got arrested, kicked out - or there was a fire.
The lights came on at 4:30 a.m., and the day began: a shower, breakfast, a morning smoke, his daily Facebook post, and then he took a bus to college. During the day, he liked to put distance between himself and the shelter, which reminded him of a prison yard, so many men milling about, just killing time.
Since coming back to Los Angeles in July, Williams had lived with the hope that the world wasn't through with him, that the crimes of his past, his years of addiction, homelessness and incarceration, might be forgiven by helping others.
This morning he believed it just might be possible.
He had been accepted into a pilot program at Los Angeles Southwest College designed to provide him with skills to work in one of the city's fastest growing job sectors: homeless services.
Flush with Measure H funding, a sales-tax assessment passed by county voters in 2017, agencies are on a hiring spree.
With need growing and new hires changing their minds about working on the street, managers are relaxing requirements for jobs whose wages start at about $17 an hour. Degrees and advanced training are not always needed, nor in some cases, a car or driver's license.
The pilot program, Careers for a Cause, was proposed in 2018. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas' staff had recognized that the homelessness crisis offered employment opportunities for the residents of South Los Angeles.
The staff enlisted the county's workforce development agency, and with $100,000 from Ridley-Thomas' discretionary fund, created an eight-week social service training program on the community college campus. Nearly 80 candidates applied for the 25 openings.
From late October through mid-December, Mondays through Thursdays, five hours a day, Williams and his fellow students gathered to hear about life on the street from outreach workers, mental health experts and case managers.
But to find their futures, they had to face down their pasts.
"Each day, I wake up saying, 'God, let me just make it,'" Williams said during an afternoon break. He had stepped outside and was sitting in the sun. Students were queuing up at a food truck.
"You see, you have to fight the belief, the expectation that you're going to fail," he said. "You have to fight the feeling that whatever good that's coming your way, something is going to ruin it."
His voice was soft but confident.
He had just quit a nighttime janitorial job that left him exhausted. Soon after enrolling in the class, he collapsed on the street and landed in the hospital.
More than once, he thought about dropping out.
Each day, when he walked to the bus, he passed the ragged tents of a homeless encampment on Broadway Place. He stepped around the debris. That once was his life, and he understood it: You can fail on the streets, and no one notices. You can be a hero on the streets - just offer a cigarette to someone asking - and everyone looks up to you.
He emailed the program director.
I'm having serious challenges to getting to class. I'm even considering leaving which is the last thing I want.
A half an hour later, she replied with an offer of help.
Persevere, Earl. We are here to support you.
He hadn't expected her to care, and that evening he wrote back, trying to explain himself.
The benefit of being out there (on the street) is that you become resilient. Some people say hard, but underneath that hardness, is you.
A soft core that you never let out because it hurts. So you don't ask for help. You try to do everything yourself, and you still fail.
The next day, he slid his tall frame into a desk at the back of the room. Some students reached out to him. They brought him menudo and bottles of water.
Slowly he grew comfortable and learned that he wasn't alone.
His classmates included Francisco Villarruel, who sat in the front row. On his left cheek was a tattoo he got when he ran with a gang in La Puente. Convicted of kidnapping, carjacking and robbery, he did 15 years in prison. Now he was 35 and lived in a transitional housing facility. Each day he woke at 3:30 a.m., was at a gym by 4:30, at Los Angeles Trade Tech College by 7, and Southwest College by 10.
Nearby sat Kimberly Brown, who had lost her apartment in October. She said she and her husband now live in her truck. She was 38. She worked the graveyard shift as a manager for an interim housing site near MacArthur Park.
Sterling McElrath was transitioning to male. Identifying as trans and non-binary, he said he lived with his partner as a gay man and was in the process of changing the name and gender on his identification. He was 29. To attend class, he had to juggle the timing for blood tests that monitored his hormones.
One afternoon, Reba Stevens, a member of the county's mental health commission, gave the students a pep talk.
"I just celebrated 23 years of being sheltered," she said. "How many of you have been homeless?"
A flurry of hands went up.
"How many have struggled with drugs and alcohol?"
Some hands stayed up; others were raised.
"How many had problems with the criminal justice system?"
Some groups overlapped.
"I am proud to be in your company," she said. "All the policymakers in City Hall, they don't have what we have."
Earl Williams grew up at 93rd and Central in South Los Angeles.
He was a teenager in 1987 when LAPD Chief Daryl Gates launched Operation Hammer, which tore into South L.A., locking up thousands of suspected gang members and drug dealers.
Crack cocaine had become an epidemic, and the world around him was crumbling.
His father died when he was 16, and by then, he said, the line between right and wrong was defined by what he could get away with.
He dropped out of high school, and tried to keep his father's businesses - a restaurant, a nightclub - going. But running away was easier. He stayed at the Frontier Hotel downtown, then drove to San Francisco, where he lived in the Tenderloin, under bridges, on the streets and in halfway houses.
He said he became addicted to crack, a habit that led to robbing banks. He never used a gun, he said, just slipped a note to tellers or asked them for the money. One teller, he recalled, said no. Another broke into tears.
Two arrests and two convictions followed, for a total of nearly 12 years in federal prisons.
By his count, from age 14 to 48 he lived in a place he could call his own just three times, for less than a total of nine months. He spent the rest of his time in mental hospitals, jails and on the streets. He was assaulted and robbed.
He was diagnosed with "anti-social personality disorder," he said, and still remembers the language of the report: "Mr. Williams' prognosis for recovery is poor. His element has never been successfully treated."
Now, day after day, he and the other students straggled into their classroom at 11:30 a.m. Spiral notebooks and McDonald's bags covered their desks.
Over the weeks, they studied computer skills, discussed the importance of cover letters and practiced how to talk to employers about gaps in their resumes.
They tried to keep their expectations in check.
"Is everyone familiar with Measure H?" asked Alison Korte, a manager with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
"We had a structure like toothpicks, and they dumped all this money on it," Korte said, describing the additional $355 million a year.
"Organizations like ours are struggling the most with hiring. We have 1,200 vacant positions in L.A. County, and the turnover is continuous."
With so many openings, agencies are looking beyond degreed social workers and turning to those whose experiences are more closely aligned with the people they would be helping.
The agencies call it "lived experience," and it often accounts for the gaps in resumes that most employers might shy away from: bouts of homelessness, substance abuse, mental illness.
"What are you looking for when we put our resumes together?" one student asked.
Korte replied: "We want people who are interested in the work, who know the population and geography. Candidates will know where to go where people are struggling and will know how to engage with them. The hardest skill set is how to engage and work with people with empathy."
But empathy came with a cautionary note, the students learned, if it reopened old wounds. This was evident during sessions on trauma that led to personal discussions about domestic violence, childhood abuse, violent death.
Outreach work would expose the students to stories like their own, and teachers emphasized the need for professional boundaries.
"Our job is to listen," instructor Courtney Pierce told them. "Someone might not want to hear about our suffering. And so be aware: If you say to them, 'I know what you're going through,' well, maybe you don't."
The program's case manager, Guro Slettner, sat in the back of the class, ready to answer impromptu questions and any concerns.
In Slettner's mind, the world was divided into those who were privileged and born into opportunity and those who were resilient, able to survive in situations where others would struggle.
She had a clear read on the opportunities and struggles that had shaped the lives of the students and the risks they were taking to change the odds.
In his notebook, Williams wrote:
I think there's something devastating about suffering loss in life, especially if it's persistent and becomes a lifestyle. You lose your keys one time, and it's an annoyance. At worst you take the bus or break a window. You lose your keys forever, and you never drive. You never go anywhere, and you run out of friends to talk to to get what you need.
You stop asking.
Sometimes I'm scared of the future. That it won't work out the way that I hope. I won't get what I need or want. I won't become the normal citizen that I've always desired to be.
One Friday morning, a dozen of the students met at a youth center at Vermont Avenue and 50th Street. In khakis and a plaid shirt, Williams listened to a description of the center, which served nearly 250 people ages 16 to 25.
After a tour through a lounge with sofas, bean-bag chairs, air hockey, Foosball and Montel on the television, Williams broke away to talk with Gerald Franklin, a counselor.
"I had no idea this sort of thing was going on," Williams said. "I get jealous, and it makes me feel irresponsible and grateful for what's here. But this wasn't here when I grew up."
Franklin understood. "When we was coming up," he said, "none of this was around."
For Williams, the expectation had been jail, and strangely that was comforting. In jail, you could get away from the hustle, the dope, the responsibilities - just by giving up.
Now his mind was spinning with what might have been.
He remembered being in Leavenworth on the November day that Barack Obama was elected president.
The warden had locked down the prison, afraid of a riot if Obama didn't win.
When Obama did win, white gangs shouted and jeered.
"All the blacks, though, got quiet and went to their bunks," Williams recalled. "My first emotion was anger. Obama broke every belief I had. I had believed that everything was against me. But to see Obama be president forced me to admit that I was wrong. That I could be president. I didn't have to go that other route, and I was angry."
On a sunny December morning, the students gathered at Southwest College for graduation.
Eight weeks of classes weren't many, but for most they encompassed a lifetime. The small auditorium was nearly full. Balloons floated near the lectern.
Williams' mother sat in the second row.
Cherylynn Hoff, the acting director for the pilot program that will be offered as part of the regular curriculum at the college in the spring, greeted the students, family and guests. She had helped start Careers for a Cause, working with Ridley-Thomas' staff, the college and the South Los Angeles Transit Empowerment Zone.
"This program is about so much more than employment," Hoff said. "This is about self-sufficiency and being successful in your community. When we talk about trauma and how much trauma is in this community, each one of you is working to break that cycle, for yourselves, your families, for our communities."
Four students had been asked to speak.
Williams was the last, and he surprised everyone. His soft voice filled the room.
As he built to a crescendo - his words punctuated by students calling out and applauding - he paced the room and described his moments of doubt and the help he had received.
"I ... wanted ... to ... complete ... this ... program," he shouted, striking the lectern after each word.
The class roared with encouragement. They had grown accustomed to the highs and lows of life that he described each morning in his Facebook posts.
"Now we're moving on," he said. "We're moving on with this need. This need to love. This need to say this person is hurting, I know what they're going through. I'm going to help them, but I can't do it alone. So now we're connected as a team. This is what benevolence is."
He caught his breath.
"We are at war. We are losing the war. Did I say that? We are losing the war! But the beautiful thing about today is we are winning the battle."
His mother beamed with pride.
"You see there is something good here, deep down, trying to get out," he said, crossing his chest with his arms.
"You can't knock out goodness. You can't knock out hope. All you can do is provide a means to share it. This is the means, and I thank you for it."
Afterward, the class celebrated at a hotel near the airport, where Williams spent the night.
When he climbed into bed, he stared up at the ceiling.
Tomorrow he would start making some phone calls and look for a job, but for now, he reveled in the battle he had won.
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