Upward Bound House and People Assisting the Homeless help people help themselves off the streets and into permanent housing
By Gary Walker
Not long after her daughter’s first birthday, Ayisha Payne found herself couch-surfing and living out of her car.
A former U.S. Army cook who served for two years shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Payne lost her job working with disabled children while recovering from a debilitating car crash and was unable to find work before her unemployment benefits expired.
“I would cry all the time,” said Payne, 32. “I had this baby girl and no place for her.”
The story could have ended there, or with her daughter in a foster home and Payne sleeping on the streets.
But now Payne is back at work as an at-home caregiver, paying rent for an apartment that she and bubbly two-year-old Asriel call home.
It’s a happy ending that began with a month-long stay at Upward Bound House, a nonprofit social services and shelter agency that specializes in helping homeless families and seniors get back on track with their lives and support themselves in permanent housing.
Booker Pearson, a Playa del Rey resident and co-founder of Upward Bound House, has a lot to do with success stories coming out of the group’s Santa Monica senior shelter and a family shelter in the sliver of Culver City the stretches west into Mar Vista — where Payne and Asriel stayed last summer.
A retired financial industry executive, Pearson is spry for 70. Over the past three years, he’s worked through Upward Bound House and the social services network People Assisting the Homeless (PATH) to find permanent housing for more than 20 people.
“My heart is really with the kids,” said Pearson, who has been involved with homeless assistance efforts for two decades. “It’s really sad to see these young faces with so much hope but, through no fault of their own, often have no place to go.”
Pearson doesn’t just help clients who come to the shelter — he often brings them in from the streets.
Along with PATH outreach workers, Pearson frequently combs the streets of Playa del Rey and Westchester and even explores homeless encampments in the Ballona Wetlands to extend his helping hand.
It was on one of those jaunts that Pearson met the Williams family, lost among what he calls the hidden or invisible homeless in residential Westside neighborhoods — those who blend in during the day as kids attend school and parents search for work.
About two years ago, Pearson and PATH workers found Fredrece and Bernard Williams and their five children sleeping overnight in a van in Westchester. For roughly 18 months, they’ve been living at a home in Mar Vista.
Put simply, “It’s a relief not to be on the streets anymore,” Fredrece Williams said.
A member of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa, Pearson chaired its homeless committee until it was disbanded in 2012.
“One of the reasons that the committee was started was because [the council] didn’t want the homeless in Venice to come to Westchester,” Pearson said. “What people don’t understand is that we already have them here. There are no boundaries in homelessness.”
The Williams family was initially leery of Pearson’s helping hand. It took him nearly 10 tries before they agreed to let him call Upward Bound House on their behalf.
“When you have a family and you’re living in the streets, you’re wary of contacting any government agency because they can take the children away and place them in foster care,” Pearson said. “That’s why so many of them stay hidden, and it makes it harder for those who want to find them and help them.”
Under state law, child welfare agencies can’t take children into foster care simply because they are homeless, but homelessness is frequently a catalyst for conditions that could prompt state intervention. Some 40% of children who are homeless for more than 90 days enter foster care, according to a Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority report.
Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appointed Pearson to LAHSA’s Board of Commissioners in June 2012.
“I’ve realized that families will do anything to get their kids off the street,” Pearson said of those he’s helped. “These families have gone through incredible obstacles to keep their kids with them.”
People who come to Upward Bound House shelters find wraparound services that include job placement and rent payment assistance that tapers down as tenants become financially stable.
“The idea is to have everybody self-sufficient in a certain amount of time,” Pearson said.
Upward Bound House Executive Director Christine Murasy-Glascoe said she’s inspired by the stories of those Pearson and PATH have helped into permanent housing.
“You can see how resilient these families are. You can’t help but fall in love with them and their children,” Murasy-Glascoe said.
‘Now I can see there’s hope’
Pearson doesn’t always have far to search in his local homeless outreach efforts.
He and PATH workers often visit Westchester Park, where many of the area’s homeless conspicuously congregate.
Nick Stitman used to one of them.
Filled with despair after being laid off from his restaurant job and subsequently suffering a stroke while living in the park, Stitman — then approaching 55 — made an attempt at suicide.
During recovery, he gave himself an ultimatum: he’d be out of the park in six months, or else.
“If there was nothing here for me, I told myself I’d do it again,” Stitman said. “I had to find something or someone to help me take that first step, but I didn’t know where to go for help.”
Tomaz Babiszkiewicz, an outreach worker at PATH, found Stitman in the park not long before he would have reached the end of that sixth month.
Stitman spent a year at a PATH shelter before he found permanent housing, receiving encouragement from Pearson along the way.
“We try to build trust with the people that we find. We never promise them anything, but we give them a chance,” Babiszkiewicz said.
Even today, Stitman occasionally finds it hard to believe that he sleeps in his own apartment.
“I still feel unsure of myself sometimes, but I’m trying. I was homeless for four years, so it’s a big difference,” Stitman said.
“Now I can see there’s hope. I know things can get better,” he said.
Unlike Stitman, many of the homeless who congregate in Westchester Park are services-resistant — often in the grips of mental illness and drug addiction.
“They just push back every time you try. [Our program] can’t do much for them,” Pearson said.
But success stories like Payne (who said she agreed to tell her story so that it might inspire others not to give up), the Williams family and Stitman are what gives Pearson hope to keep trying.
“For me it’s a no brainer to offer a lifeline to people who need it,” he said. “The more you do this type of work, the more you realize that you have to do it.”
Upward Bound House can be reached at (310) 458-7779 or upwardboundhouse.org.