A homemaker’s unlikely friendship with a homeless man inspires hope for a better tomorrow
By Stephanie Case
Under the freeway overpass where the 90 crosses the 405, Nathalie Boutin and Akinwale Adubi struck up an unlikely friendship.
Boutin, a French-born homemaker and mother of two, was driving a shortcut down Culver City’s industrial Selmaraine Drive when she spotted Adubi riding a bright green bicycle. Tied to his handlebars were a dozen trash bags, each stuffed with bottles and cans that had once been strewn across the sidewalk.
Each day, Adubi pedals through the neighborhood, collecting recyclables to make a living, then returns home to his broken-down Dodge Grand Caravan parked on Selmaraine. Each night, he sleeps outside in a chair, propped next to the van.
From behind her car window, Boutin was struck by the site of Adubi at home on the street.
“It’s so easy to keep on driving. That’s what most people do,” she says. “But that day, I stopped.”
Boutin introduced herself to Adubi and, after a quick trip to a nearby grocery store, brought him a gift: a bunch of bananas, bottled water and a pack of cigarettes.
To this day, the cigarettes sit untouched in his van. (“I want to live a long life,” Adubi says. “Anything that’s dangerous to my health, I avoid it completely.”) But the gesture sparked a connection between the two Culver City dwellers: one a homemaker, one homeless, both immigrants chasing an American dream.
Thirty six years ago, Adubi, a London-born Nigerian, came to Los Angeles with $600 in his pocket and a hunger to study engineering. He idolized automotive greats like John DeLorean and Ford’s Lee Iacocca and dreamed of starting a spare parts manufacturing company in West Africa.
Over the years, Adubi struggled to finance his education. In 2009, he was working nightly seven-hour shifts as a security guard in Malibu to afford his daily classes at Casa Loma College in Hawthorne. Past 1 a.m., he’d ride a string of late-night buses back to his Crenshaw apartment, barely clocking in two hours of sleep before having to wake up and repeat the cycle.
“It was a lot of pressure,” Adubi admits. “I was almost going crazy, but I was able to hang in there.”
Eventually, he gave up his apartment, figuring that living out of a van on Selmaraine — with the rest of his belongings saved in storage — would keep his monthly costs down.
One day three years ago, while he sat in the van hunched over a microbiology assignment, police officers confiscated the unregistered vehicle, forcing him to unload a car’s worth of books and clothes onto the pavement.
With no home, no reliable transportation and his estranged family thousands of miles away, Adubi was on his own.
“If you’re in America and you don’t have your own house, you have nothing,” Adubi says, “especially if you’re an immigrant. If you are born here, you can always run back to your parents’ house. If you’re an immigrant, and you have nobody here … if you lose your job, you’re back on the street.”
Almost 18 years after Adubi emigrated, Boutin did the same — flying from France to start a new life in California.
“What I learned in this country — which I was probably missing in France — is how people are so driven, how people believe in their dreams,” she says.
“I remember driving here, back in ‘98, and on an elementary school wall, written in huge letters, was: ‘Believe in Your Dreams.’ The concept, to me, was completely new. I grew up thinking that there was only room for the elites; whoever was the best would have opportunities, and the rest would struggle. But people will give you a chance in this country.”
Boutin wants to give Adubi a chance: to get back on his feet, to find a working vehicle, and to restart his education. He plans to start small — working the graveyard shift as a cab driver or registered nurse to fund his studies and, ideally, one day starting a business in Nigeria.
“Charity begins at home,” Adubi says. “Eventually, my dream is to make sure everybody in West Africa has this knowledge. You have to start with your own family first.”
His goal is only fitting; Adubi’s first name, Akinwale, is Nigerian for “the warrior came home.”
Since her fateful stop for bananas and cigarettes, Boutin has become Adubi’s one-woman advocate: negotiating against rent hikes at his storage facility, looking for a mechanic to fix his current van, and sharing his story with neighbors and local organizations. Last month, she started a GoFundMe page to help raise money to jumpstart Adubi’s goals.
“I can’t do this by myself, but I can reach out to the community,” Boutin says. “And it’s exciting, because I think we have the power to make a difference for him. If everyone everyday does something for someone in need, this is a better world.”