By Christina Campodonico
Thirteen-year Venice resident Kara Donohue had no idea her neighbor Motique Alston had been homeless until Alston invited her to attend “Everyone In: Stories from the Frontline,” a live storytelling event hosted by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles on June 20.
In the parking lot next to The Brig on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, where apartment leases easily exceed $4,000 per month, 54-year-old Alston got up in front of hundreds of people and spoke about how the death of her mother, the loss of her house, a physically abusive relationship and drug abuse to cope with it all
had pushed her into homelessness years earlier, and how affordable housing in Venice helped her find a way out.
“It feels fantastic to have keys and a lease. It feels good to pay rent every month. It feels good to pay bills and
have bills in my name. It feels good to be self-sufficient,” Alston told me before the event, emceed by no less than actor Harry Shearer.
Alston and four other storytellers who had previously been homeless were the stars of the show, but audience members like Donohue also had a role to play.
“Motique, she lives around the corner from me,” said the 43-year-old ornithologist afterwards. “I would stop and chat with her on my walks. … I didn’t even know that the housing she was in was government related-housing. … So it was a surprise to find out about her background.”
Donohue came into the night with “conflicting emotions” about Venice’s homeless problem, but after hearing her neighbor’s story and those of five others, left with “far more compassionate emotions,” she said.
“[I learned] that I’m not doing enough to support fixing the problem.”
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Changing hearts and minds about the homeless is a primary goal of the local United Way chapter’s “Everyone In” campaign, which encourages Angelenos to rise above NIMBY reflexes and participate in compassion- and community-driven solutions to homelessness.
“We really feel like if we can get those stories and put a human side to the issue, that it will open up people’s willingness to have [supportive or affordable] housing in their neighborhoods,” said United Way of Greater Los Angeles President Elise Buik. “So United Way is trying to really go deep on local community issues, so that we can be more helpful and relevant.”
For this particular pop-up in Venice, the United Way partnered with the John and Marilyn Wells Foundation, which has been hosting “Stories from the Frontline” events like this for almost a year.
“I heard a formerly homeless woman tell her story… and when I looked at this woman, I thought people need to hear her, this story from somebody who’s lived homelessness and is recovered and has their life back,” Marilyn Wells, co-chair of the foundation which bears her and husband’s names, said of the inspiration for the series.
When live storytelling series The Moth turned down formerly homeless speakers prepped by her foundation for one of its storytelling slams on the theme of “Home,” Wells and photographer Allison Schallert decided to do their own Moth-style event, specifically focused on the issue of homelessness and supportive housing in Los Angeles, leading to the birth of “Stories from the Frontline.”
“Our main purpose is to convert NIMBYs to YIMBYs,” or “Yes In My Back Yarders,” said Schallert. “The way to do that is by showing them how absolutely wonderful all these people are.”
And incredibly resilient, a theme which ran throughout each of the speakers’ stories that night.
Singer-songwriter Mahalia Jean-Pierre — who’s performed at the Staples Center, delivered a TedX talk and recently released a new song called “Hide and Seek” on Spotify and other digital music platforms — shared her miraculous story of fleeing an abusive relationship in Colorado with her then one-year-old son to pitch a tent on Venice Beach and pursue a career in music.
After a few weeks of camping on a patch of sand near an apartment building, a Good Samaritan connected with the nonprofit St. Joseph Center approached Jean-Pierre and helped her and her son find a motel for the night. That led to months of “motel-hopping,” as Jean-Pierre describes it, but also finding the nonprofit Safe Place for Youth, where she could take a shower, create art and focus on her music, even though moving between motels and shelters, having a second child and navigating social services were dominating her life outside the Lincoln Boulevard youth center.
“It was a weird time of contrasts,” she told me later. “I was getting these really crazy opportunities, like getting to sing in front of 13,000 people at the Staples Center, while going back to an empty motel room.”
But it was also a time of tremendous artistic and personal growth, as Jean-Pierre took full advantage of Safe Place for Youth’s music and art resources, including a pop-up recording booth and mentorship sessions with music industry professionals.
“Maybe I can turn this starving artist stigma into a thriving artist reality,” she told the audience during “Everyone In.”
Jean-Pierre eventually found a one-bedroom apartment in North Hollywood, where she’s been living with her two children for the last month.
“I got to drive down Victory Boulevard to my new apartment,” she said at the podium. “It was a victory.”
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Twenty-three-year-old Daniel Chavez also shared his elation about finding a home. After telling the audience how he turned his life around following a brush with the law and a battle with addiction, Chavez announced at the very end of his speech that he had just received a call greenlighting him to move into an apartment.
“Without affordable housing and service providers in Venice, I would probably be in a cell,” he said.
Twenty-year-old Erika Herod said Safe Place for Youth helped her find housing and a job after she spent her teenage years couch surfing to flee an abusive home life, and former Venetian Sue Gallagher detailed how she went from living happily in Venice for 33 years to living on the streets.
“I never thought I’d end up homeless — just the thought scared me to death,” Gallagher confessed during her speech. “I had to eat a lot of humble pie.”
After her landlord raised the rent on her Venice home, Gallagher slept on Westwood Boulevard near UCLA in front of storefronts and used the bathroom at a 24/7 Starbucks nearby and a kitchen at the university to which her psychiatrist had given her a key. She offered to pet sit or clean houses for friends to get by.
“Every day I would say to myself, ‘This is only temporary, this is only temporary,’” Gallagher recounted.
When it got to be too much, she’d go to 12-step meetings to keep herself on track, stop at St. Joseph Center’s Bread and Roses Café for a bite, and travel down to the beach for respites from what she described as the “24/7 gig” of homelessness.
“The sound of those huge waves crashing down gave me some serenity, some hope,” she said.
Eventually, St. Joseph Center helped her secure a subsidized apartment in North Hollywood, where she now pays $331 in rent each month.
“I cried like a baby,” she recalled. “St. Joe’s gave me kitchen supplies, linens, a bed and a TV.”
“It’s just quiet,” she told me of the neighborhood she now calls home. “I see little birds, sparrows. … And we have these huge big trees in my neighborhood. It feels great. My neighbors have my back.”
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Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin is especially familiar with neighborhood resistance to affordable and supportive housing projects, particularly in Venice. Despite significant community pushback, he’s backing affordable housing projects slated for the city’s Thatcher yard and the public parking lot at Venice Boulevard and Pacific Avenue, and recently threw his full weight behind staging temporary homeless housing at the former Metro bus yard on Main Street.
Hopeful that hearing stories like Gallagher’s, Herod’s, Chavez’s, Jean-Pierre’s and Alston’s will inspire broader support for local efforts to assist the homeless, Bonin spoke from the podium about his experiences sleeping either in a car or on the beach in Santa Monica and Venice after a bad breakup with an alcoholic boyfriend.
“I think there’s a lot of folks who if they really understood who was homeless and how they became homeless and what happens when someone becomes no longer homeless, they’d be more willing to support [the] government and the service agencies,” he said. “We’ve heard from five or six people tonight who have turned their lives around dramatically. When I was sleeping in my car or sleeping on the beach, the idea of being a married, responsible parent who represented 270,000 people was unimaginable. … The distance between where we think we are and being homeless is very short and fast, but the distance between being at rock bottom and turning your life around is also pretty short. With the right resources and the right support, people can go from the street to wherever they want to be.”
Each of the speakers’ stories emanated not only personal courage and gratitude, but also passionate advocacy for extending to others the kind of affordable housing and supportive social services that lifted them up.
“Everyone falls down,” said Jean-Pierre. “We need more of a safety net.”
“Everyone deserves a home,” said Alston, now working as a substance abuse counselor. “We need somewhere to put [the homeless], instead of moving them from area to area, block to block.”
There may not have been a roof over the night’s storytelling soiree, but there was a giant door at the center of the space, inviting anyone who cared to listen to step inside.