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Stories from Whittier

On May 7, we co-hosted our first-ever virtual Stories From The Frontline event, sponsored by the John and Marilyn Wells Family Foundation. Host Christine Singer-Luna, of “What’s Up, Whittier?” facilitated a wonderful hour of story-telling and introduced the speakers—amazing advocates working to end homelessness, many of whom have experienced homelessness themselves.

We heard from some of our partners at homeless service organizations about why they are so moved to work on behalf of those without housing, and from people who have lived outside about the life-changing impact that housing and services had on their lives.

There was a time when CSH Speak Up! Advocate Mary Martinez was unable to walk due to health complications. Housing gave her hope. “Once I was strong enough to get on my own, they gave me housing. Once I got in my housing, I went back to school. I got my certificate to be a peer specialist, a wellness outreach worker and there was no more room for drugs in my life.” Of course, she shared her victory story with a big smile while wearing high heels.

Speak UP! Advocate Keri Bales and Lori Derrington, a former resident of Whittier First Day shared courageous stories about their pathways to housing. Lori turned her experience into art, making t-shirts to help inform people of the reality of life on the streets. She reminded us, “We can all benefit from learning from each other. After all, my success wasn’t my success without help from the community.”

Keri shared that support and community can come in a multitude of forms. It was Keri’s dog that supported her through domestic abuse and homelessness, so she was determined not to abandon her best friend in the pursuit of housing. “I told the outreach workers, my dog’s going with me and they said PATH in Hollywood has a bed and a kennel and they’re waiting for you… So they packed me up and got me out and that was the beginning of a beautiful life.”

We were inspired to hear our very own San Gabriel Valley Everyone In organizer Allison Henry speak to her reasons for becoming an advocate. “Falling into homelessness is so easy…I want to be part of the solution. I want to advocate for those who can’t always advocate for themselves. I want to be the informed voice.”

Kawika Smith, an ambassador with Imagine LA, shared his journey from childhood homelessness to a full scholarship to Morehouse College. Kawika remembers being asked to speak to his 5th grade class, “I told my story and everyone in class was crying because we all found out that day that mostly all of us had experienced homelessness. It was very emotional but it was also a reality check that just because someone doesn’t show the signs, doesn’t mean that it’s not there.”

Constanza Pachon, the CEO of The Whole Child, taught us about the impact that homelessness can have on children and families. No one needs to remind Constanza of how wide-spread homelessness is for children. She’s dedicated her life to fighting it, and she has a plan. “We strongly believe that the best way to curb intergenerational homelessness is by rapidly rehousing children and their families and by providing mental health services to lessen the traumatic effect of homelessness.”

Fighting to end homelessness is a colossal task with challenges at every turn. TK Monzon, CES program director for Whittier First Day, reminded us of how important it is for homeless service providers and advocates to stay positive. “We like to celebrate the little wins because it’s really crucial in having hope or looking to that better day.” Mike + Loren, local musicians who know what it’s like to live on the street, gave us a taste of that positivity when they shared a song about overcoming challenges.

Most of the speakers shared very personal stories of overcoming unique hardships, but all their stories had one thing in common: ultimately it was a human connection that led them to the opportunities that changed their lives. It’s for this reason we celebrate the advocates who, everyday, choose to put someone else’s well being ahead of their own, to live with compassion and to put that compassion into action.

Elise Buik, President and CEO of United Way of Greater Los Angeles, closed out our event with a call to action. “Now more than ever, our neighbors that are living on the streets need us and your participation today shows that you want to be a part of helping them and helping us as we really look towards long term solutions, to get our neighbors into safe places during this crisis, and ultimately get them into the housing they deserve.”
We hope you were able to join us and that you were as moved by our incredible speakers as we were. Stay tuned for our next Stories From The Frontline on June 30, and keep an eye out—we’ll be sharing all kinds of ways you can continue to advocate for your neighbors, no matter where you are.

You can watch the full Stories From The Frontline event here.