In December 1966, I was a 23-year-old college graduate, with a newborn son and an Israeli artist husband who was new to this country and unemployed. We had moved to Los Angeles seeking work, but nothing had materialized. Our money was gone, and we had exhausted all other resources. With rent due, we entered the welfare office in West L.A. in desperation and qualified for assistance. This was soon after the Watts Riots, and the L.A. County Department of Public Social Services was training college graduates to be social workers. I applied and within 3 months was assigned a caseload of 60 “welfare mothers” in South Central L.A. Within a year, I was transferred to the downtown/Skid Row area, to work with the chronically mentally ill, who were then being released into the community by the hundreds, as state mental hospitals were being closed. My then husband soon found full time work himself, and our nightmare was over…
I was a college graduate from a middle class background –- yet over a relatively short period of time life circumstances, naiveté, and some poor decisions had caused my life to fall apart. I have never forgotten what I felt as that had happened –- and I never will. If things could go so wrong for me, then how much more wrong can they go for those who did not have the opportunities and education that I had? My life work eventually was directed by those feelings — and I believe has benefited from an empathy that has pervaded everything I have done since.
I quit L.A. County in 1971, but these early experiences would impact greatly on my work later on. Divorced and then remarried, the next few years were relatively quiet, as I gave birth to two daughters in addition to my son. There was deep within me during this time, however, a feeling that there was something that I was supposed to do -– but I did not yet know what it was. And then, in early 1980, the past joined together with the present –- to take me into the future.
One morning, an article appeared in the L.A. Times, describing hundreds of children of all ages living in the decaying, transient hotels of L.A.’s Skid Row. Within two months, a woman possessed, I created a nonprofit agency, Para los Niños (For the Children). One year later, we opened our doors with a childcare center for 90 children pulled from those hotels. And that was just the beginning. Today the agency operates charter schools and a full array of family social services in Central and South Los Angeles and San Bernardino County.
In 1983, while still with Para Los Niños, I began to realize that to help children, I needed to help the parents who were raising them. At this point, I co-founded another nonprofit agency, L.A. Family Housing, to develop affordable housing for families through new construction. In 1985, we began developing emergency shelters. That same year, my second husband died of cancer.
Compelled to continue in the direction I was going, in 1988, I began two new nonprofit agencies as an evolution of my earlier work in the field. A Community of Friends was formed to develop affordable housing for the chronically mentally ill homeless and has long been run by others. A few months later, I founded Beyond Shelter and introduced a new approach to ending family homelessness: Housing First. Based firmly on the human right to housing, the Housing First approach (also called rapid re-housing) helps homeless families leave shelters and move back into affordable housing as quickly as possible. Once in permanent housing, case managers provide support to help families rebuild their lives. More than 5,000 homeless families, mostly single mothers of color, have participated in the program in L.A., referred by emergency shelters, transitional housing, domestic violence programs, halfway houses, and drug treatment centers. In 2009, based on this innovation that has now transformed both public policy and practice on a national scale, I was elected a Senior Fellow at Ashoka, the global association of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs.
In 1993, desperate for something to change, I became political for the first time. Besides serving as a surrogate speaker in L.A. for then-Governor Bill Clinton, I also coordinated a Roundtable on Housing and Homelessness for the Clinton Transition Team in Little Rock, Arkansas. I began traveling to Washington DC on a regular basis, working closely with national advocacy groups that I still work with to this day.
On May 1, 2011, I left Beyond Shelter after 23 years to launch my 5th nonprofit organization, Partnering for Change: The National Institute for Innovative Strategies to Combat Family Homelessness and Poverty. An evolution of Beyond Shelter’s Institute for Research, Training & Technical Assistance, this new effort will enable me to work with valued colleagues from throughout the country whose work is compatible with mine.
Although the following advice has obvious roots in my own life’s work, I am honored to be asked to share my thoughts and hope that they are helpful:
No one does it alone. Although I have been the “visionary leader” in many projects, I have never done it alone. Over the years, I have attracted some of the best younger minds in the field by offering them their “dream job” and then letting them create a position that meets my needs while also meeting theirs. These people have contributed greatly to our mutual efforts – and all have gone on to do great things.
Being innovative may not be the best way to make new friends. People become angry when you challenge the way things are. It is in our nature to resist new ideas. You must therefore be strong, believe in yourself, keep doing what is right, and learn to ignore unwarranted or mean-spirited criticism.
Always remember that “there but for the grace of God go I.” I learned long ago that it’s truly an accident of birth that puts one child in Skid Row and another in Beverly Hills. To be fully engaged in the world, I think that this advice is particularly valuable today when class, culture, and geography keep people divided and apart.
Never judge. I believe that we should rarely judge another’s actions. An abused child grows up to be an abusive mother, still hurting deep inside. A delinquent teenager becomes a hardened criminal, wasting a life in prison. Inside each is a child whom we abandoned years before, a child that we ignored. We can do better -– and we must. Reach out and care. The soft touch of a hand, a connection with the eyes, can make a difference, even if only for a moment.
You can help change the world. I believe that most people in our world live heroic lives merely trying to survive for one more day. That is why I feel so strongly that those of us who can make things better must do so. Because there are so many ways to help, this does not have to become one’s life work. Every action counts.
Photos by: Rebecca Tull