L.A.’s unsheltered take stock before giving thanks

Patricia Ragland has been expecting to celebrate Thanksgiving with her family all week. For the past two years she’s spent the day alone, and like many Americans enjoying vacations with a large gathering for the first time during the pandemic, she’s nervous and excited.

When she enters her sister’s home in the Moreno Valley, she is met with many questions, perhaps a little tension, the typical undercurrents of judgment and concern. But for homeless people like Ragland, declarations of love are sometimes difficult to decipher.

“Where have you been?” She imagines they will ask, and she will share the good news. She’s been housed since July and now lives in a motel on Western Avenue.

“We hope you won’t disappear again,” they will probably reply, trying to calm her down. But that hurts the most. She can’t help but feel like the aunt who once had everything and now has so little.

“I never thought it would be me,” she said. “That’s one of my biggest fears.”

Thanksgiving, the start of the end-of-year holiday, is a day of reflection, but for the unprotected, giving thanks doesn’t always come easy. In Los Angeles, the homeless crisis has worsened. Politicians make promises, agencies try to inspire hope, but for those whose lives are ruled by the streets, the past weighs heavily on the future.

When Ragland lost her job at an assisted living facility in 2017, she couldn’t pay the rent on her apartment and ended up on the streets of South Los Angeles.

In January, she lost her 24-year-old son JaiShahn to diabetes and two years earlier a niece in a stabbing at a Mid-City nightclub. The two boys used to light up the room, and now they were gone.

Ragland, 45, fights back tears and tries to take the focus off her grief.

“It’s still going to be a happy occasion,” she said, grateful for the family who invited her and a dinner that will include the dressing her sister makes from her mother’s recipe, her favorite dressing.

Ragland sits down at the table, taking in the faces, the voices, and the cheers, and knows she’s going to whisper a short prayer to herself.

“Let’s not further separate from the things we’ve been through,” she will say. “All we have is us. So just love each other hard and don’t let go.”

Carried by memories

As many families connect familiar faces and shared memories on this day, Pablo Arroyos turns his thoughts to Mexico, where his wife and two young daughters now live. Their last Thanksgiving together was in 2019.

Life in America – a one-bedroom apartment in Temple City shared with a cousin – had become too difficult and too expensive for her, and now Arroyos is alone, living in his 1995 Chevy Blazer and sleeping with a few a thin mattress of pillows, surrounded by boxes of T-shirts and sneakers, canned peaches and baked beans, cases of water, toothpaste and toiletries.

The 43-year-old gardener has a couple of friends who are also homeless and live under a freeway overpass near the hotel where he parks his 4×4 in Arcadia. He’s trying to find work, believing that anything here is better than what he can get in Mexico.

“Most of the money I make I send back to my wife and kids, which doesn’t leave me enough for rent,” he said. “It can be lonely.”

He imagines that they are preparing for their special holiday, the Feast of the Virgen de Guadalupe, on December 9th. He remembers the celebration from his childhood in a small village in eastern Mexico, where everyone would gather for Mass and a meal together: pork tamales, roast goat with guacamole and tostadas, beans and salsa, gorditas stuffed with pork rind, cheese and beans.

“We came together from across the state to give thanks for one another and for God,” he recalled.

But that was more than 22 years ago, and though the holidays remind him of what he’s lost, he finds solace in the generosity of others who allow him to stock up on food and supplies.

“Because it’s Thanksgiving and Christmas time, people give more,” he said. “I’m grateful for every item and every opportunity I get.”

He recently bought a new pair of Nikes at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church in Pasadena and showered at the All Saints Episcopal Church nearby. At Monrovia’s Foothill Unity Center, he bought sugar cookies, Kings Hawaiian rolls, and canned vegetables.

On Thursday, he will eat at an animal shelter and donation center in Pasadena. As much as he looks forward to the meal, the company is just as special.

“Talking to other people is really what I need more than food,” Arroyos said. “It feels good to share your stories, to feel like a human being and not be judged by people. So there are some good things about the holidays too.”

friendliness of strangers

When second chances come, they often mean a loss of pride. At the end of a special pre-Thanksgiving lunch, outreach workers from the Homeless Outreach Program Integrated Care System
in Los Angeles, Larry Gray and Lorna Walker offered a small extra meal to take home.

“I said no,” Gray said. “I didn’t feel good about taking a plate home. I guess it was my pride.”

But he regretted his decision as soon as they returned to their RV parked at 60th Space on Western Avenue with a dead battery, a broken fan belt — and no heat or running water.

This couple proudly sticks together. They met almost two years ago at a neighborhood hangout five blocks away under a shady tree.

Gray, 60, a former case manager at a Santa Monica mental health agency, survived a heart attack and double bypass in 2015, but lost the job when the pandemic hit.

Walker, 57, was a phlebotomist but had to stop working when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. When her husband died, she found an apartment, and when the owner sold the property, she received a moving fee that she and Gray had previously paid for the RV.

Today they are a familiar sight – standing beside her in her wheelchair – and visit their small parish church on Tuesdays for lunch and a hot meal after Sunday service. In the mornings, he leaves her with her German shepherd, Lady, while he walks to Starbucks for two cups of hot water for her Folgers and oatmeal.

They’re not sure what they’re going to do on Thanksgiving. They have no children, and for Gray, the season is overshadowed by the memory of his mother, who died almost 25 years ago.

Walker similarly recalls her father – “a good provider” – and her mother baking custom cakes for their children on special holidays. Hers would be lemon with lemon glaze.

“Family members took care of family members,” she recalls. “I miss them both.”

Living on $1,000 a month plus the extra money Gray can make washing car windows, and relying on the generosity of others, last week’s HOPICS lunch was so special.

After a shower and clean clothes, they were presented with a gift box of winter clothing—gloves and a hat—and they chose their meal from a menu: turkey, ham, dressing, collards with cheesecake. Afterwards, Gray Walker spun around in her wheelchair as they danced to “Black Magic Woman.”

“Even though we’re going through what we’re going through,” Walker said, “we can still thank God and be thankful.”

gratitude and pride

Standing in a long line for the food gift at the Long Beach Rescue Mission on Saturday, John Wimberly took a moment to reflect on his life over the past 10 years. Once homeless and addicted to alcohol and cocaine, Thanksgiving meant nothing to him.

Then, a few days after New Year’s Eve 2015 — a cold night at 3 a.m. — he was kicked out of Union Station in Los Angeles. He wrapped himself in a sleeping bag and blanket and tried to sleep on a bench outside.

“I had nothing,” he said. “I had lost everything.”

Wimberly knew then that he had to get off Skid Row or he would either die from drugs or murder. He took the Blue Line to Long Beach and got a bed in a makeshift shelter run by the mission, which he’d always visited in the past when it was handing out free pizza or burgers.

As he approached the snake’s head, he was glad he no longer had to beg for money. He had an apartment that cost him $240 a month and a monthly disability check for $1,040. He had just received his associate degree from the local community college.

As soon as he entered the mission with its neatly set food tables, he thought back to the time when he was too proud to accept food stamps. Getting sober had humbled him. It was nothing he could have done himself.

“We measure ourselves by what we are meant to be, by what society says we are meant to be. But that’s how we get distracted,” he said, especially when we can’t meet those expectations. “Nobody wants to admit defeat.”

Accompanied by his children’s mother, Wimberly stood back as she selected the foods they would need for their meal: cranberry sauce, green beans, collards, stuffing, and sweet potatoes. They lived apart, but she had offered to cook.

Eventually they came to a table – almost 20 feet long, he recalled – with all the turkeys. They picked a medium sized bird that would be more than enough for them and their young who would join them. Wimberly looked forward to it.

“I was a father once. My sons looked up to me, and then drugs and alcohol robbed them of their father,” he said. “Now they can’t deny the fact that that bird is on the table because Dad has come to his senses.”

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-11-24/thanksgiving-homeless-los-angeles L.A.’s unsheltered take stock before giving thanks

Alley Einstein

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