Storytelling is the backbone of this campaign. Too often, discussions about homelessness descend into dehumanizing statistics or sweeping stereotypes. But stories of lived, personal experience cut through all that.
Our Stories from the Frontline series, sponsored by the John and Marilyn Wells Family Foundation, is an opportunity to transform hearts and remind neighbors in the community that we need to focus on solutions. First we gathered in Venice, then Boyle Heights, and most recently we gathered in Long Beach to hear from members of the community about their experiences.
As emcee James Suazo said to the standing room only crowd, “The goal of tonight is simple: Give people a chance to share their powerful stories so that we can better understand the pressures that tens of thousands of people are facing here in Long Beach and across L.A. County—and what we can do to help.”
We heard from wonderful speakers from Long Beach who had different pathways to homelessness, but all found their way out through housing and services.
Angela Sanchez, who experienced homelessness as a teenager, found sanctuary in school. “At school I was safe,” she said. “At school I didn’t feel homeless.” She would go on to earn a master’s degree at UCLA, become a published author, and serve on the board of Schools on Wheels, Inc.
“When you advocate for supportive and affordable housing, you’re not just looking out for your neighbors,” Angela reminded us. “You’re looking out for the future.”
Some of the speakers were graduates of CSH’s Speak Up! Program, which helps people who have experienced homelessness become advocates. As Rhiannon Diaz told us, “There are some things about me I want you to know—I’m fun and easygoing. There are some things I don’t want you to know. I’ve been to jail and I’ve been homeless. But I’m telling you because I want you to know I’m a success story.”
Will Semonsen’s mother died when he was nine and it took a toll. By 16, he was addicted to narcotics. Eventually his dad threw him out, saying “you can’t kill yourself in front of me.” Will slept on friends’ couches and floors. With nowhere to go, he found Beacon House. “I came in with a nickel in my pocket,” Will remembered. “And they said, ‘welcome home.’” With a stable home, Will got better. He made amends with his family. He just got certified as an EMT and he’s working his way towards his ultimate goal of becoming a firefighter.
Millie Brown, another Speak Up! graduate, shared how the terrible abuse she suffered as a child led her to homelessness. “I felt disgusted, I felt alone and I felt useless,” she said. Eventually she secured housing and today volunteers at the Downtown Women’s Center and has become an advocate for people experiencing homelessness.
In fact, many of our speakers at these events have become advocates after securing housing. Loren Elan just began her career with LINC Housing, a supportive and affordable housing developer based in Long Beach, and is proud to fight for her community. As she told the crowd, “Long Beach is where I met all my friends. Long beach is where I got it together. Long Beach is why I’m standing here today.”
In addition to the speakers who have experienced homelessness, we heard from Everyone In’s Long Beach organizer Jordan Wynne, who reminded us that the evening was about more than warming our hearts, but recognizing that there are solutions to homelessness and it’s our responsibility to advocate for them.
United Way President and CEO Elise Buik closed out the night and put things in perspective. “Our neighborhoods are full of people like you who have compassion, who have a voice, who have agency, and who want to be a part of the change,” she said.
“We know what works. We have more resources than we’ve ever had. And we can do this together because we have all of you here tonight. To get everyone in, we need everyone in. Let’s get to work.”
To hear more stories like these and get involved in the movement to end homelessness, come to Gather Everyone In 2019. It’s our next big event, a day of action, learning, and celebration of the people leading the fight to end homelessness in L.A., Long Beach, and far beyond.
Here are some more photos from a special night…