The Williams family, after years of anxiety and despair, believes in happy endings again.
A chance encounter in Westchester with a group of volunteers and members of a nonprofit organization assisting those who have fallen on hard times has resulted in the family finding transitional housing that could soon become permanent.
“It’s a relief not to be on the streets anymore,” said Fredrece Williams, who until late last month was living in a van with her husband, Bernard, and their five children.
The family is now housed at the Family Shelter of Upward Bound House, a Santa Monica-based nonprofit organization founded in 1991 to help mitigate the affordable housing crisis on the Westside of Los Angeles. The organization’s target populations are homeless families with minor children and very low-income seniors.
The story of the Williams family and how they came to leave behind a life of living in their van is intertwined with a joint outreach effort by People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), a nonprofit organization that has had success in directing families and homeless individuals to temporary and permanent housing, and the homeless committee of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa.
The community effort, launched by the neighborhood council with the backing of Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl last year, was designed to give the Westchester council an idea of where those without a roof over their heads are in order to take the next step towards temporary and perhaps eventually permanent housing.
To assist with the homeless count effort, the neighborhood council appropriated $5,000 in October and Rosendahl matched it with an equal amount from an officeholder account from an earlier reelection campaign.
“I saw the merits of the initiative and I thought this was the least that I could do,” the councilman explained. “I’m really proud of my neighborhood council. It shows that they really appreciate this issue and that they care.”
At its March meeting when the council discussed appropriations, a request for $10,000 for PATH to provide services was denied by the board and the non-profit was given $8,000.
Fredrece Williams, who lost her job as a seasonal employee at Toys ‘R’ Us in 2007, had no idea that her family would soon be off the streets when the Westchester volunteer team approached the family’s van.
“When they stopped to talk to us, we told them about our situation,” she recalled.
Her children, aged 2 to 18, attend school in Hawthorne, so it was a fortuitous encounter for the family as well as for the PATH volunteers that they met in Westchester, because the family usually did not park there.
“We just happened to be on that street that night,” Williams said.
PATH Director of Outreach Rodolfo Salinas sees this incident as an example of how a dedicated effort to locate and assist the homeless can reap enormous benefits, and that cities like Santa Monica and Venice, who have large populations of people without permanent shelter, are not the only Westside communities where homelessness exists.
“This demonstrates that homelessness is everywhere,” said Salinas, who is leading the Westchester-Playa outreach. “This is also an example of how a count like this can benefit from a community.”
Students from Loyola Marymount University also took part in the homeless count, and junior Robert Santilli found it to be an eye-opening experience.
“PATH has been informing us about the project and offering instruction on how to interact with the homeless population,” said Santilli, student director of LMU’s initiative Feed the Hungry. “They are showing us how to be sensitive.”
Upward Bound Executive Director David Snow said hearing about the Williams family’s arrival at the Family Shelter was characteristic of what his organization strives to do.
“Every story for us is a success story,” Snow told The Argonaut. “Every family that we are able to get off the streets and into transitional housing and hopefully permanent housing, that is a success.”
The homeless committee is happy with the result as well.
“This is very touching,” said Nora MacLellan, a Playa del Rey resident who is also a member of the committee. “Thanks to many different people and organizations, this family was able to be placed at Upward Bound House and they are able to take two of the ‘resident’ rooms that are adjacent to each other to house them.”
Salinas pointed out that while volunteers have helped a great deal with the homeless count in Westchester and Playa del Rey, it takes special training to locate and assist homeless families and couples who live in their cars, as many in the Westchester area do.
“It takes a group of skilled workers to identify people who are not as visible and who you might not always see during daytime hours,” Salinas noted.
Salinas said that it has been a revelation to many that Westchester, a community known for its wide streets and upper middle class homes, has a homeless population because they are typically not as visible as in places like Venice and often are only discovered living in their vehicles.
Williams said throughout her ordeal she tried to keep her family’s spirits up and made sure that her children attended school every day.
“I talked to them a lot and tried to be (hopeful) about our situation,” she said. “We stayed in hotels when we could because I have the baby, but we weren’t able to all of the time.”
Tracy Woodburry, the program director at Upward Bound’s Family Shelter in Culver City, where the family is currently staying, said the organization recently received 25 housing vouchers from the Housing Authority of the city of Los Angeles, and paperwork has been filed to try and obtain a low-income housing voucher for Williams and her family.
Williams has a son who is 18, and that could have posed a problem for Upward Bound because the organization traditionally assists families with minor children.
But this was a special case.
“Because it was such a large family and we wanted to keep them together, we made an exception in this case,” Woodburry explained.
There is an ongoing effort in Venice called the “Roadmap to Housing” that is designed to move families living in their vehicles into permanent housing, and PATH is also taking the lead role in that endeavor.
Salinas thinks the story of the Williams family can give hope to Venice residents who support the “Roadmap to Housing” plan.
“We can win the hearts and minds of a community when there are success stories like this family,” he said.
Rosendahl, who represents Westchester, Playa del Rey and Venice, was thrilled to learn about the Williams family and that they are now at Upward Bound.
“This is one of those incredible stories that you hear about,” he said. “These are my constituents too, whether they live in mansions or in a van, they deserve the same compassion and appreciation.”
He also praised Snow’s organization for its efforts to help the less fortunate. “Upward Bound is a shining example of what can be done to help the homeless,” the councilman said. “It’s also an example that the money that was used for this outreach was money well spent.”
Williams, who had never heard of PATH and Upward Bound before last month, now considers them to be her family’s saviors.
“They came along at the right time,” she said.