Opinion

The Doorway Out of 38 Years of Homelessness

By | Nov 10, 2009

Cali Zimmerman  By Cali Zimmerman

 

The atmosphere was charged at the Long Beach Multi-Service Center (MSC) on Friday morning. Everyone was busy with last-minute arrangements, calling utilities agencies and double-checking checklists. Shortly after I’d arrived and settled myself in a corner, trying to stay out of the way, Jill Horn rushed into the office with a triumphant grin.

“We got the electricity on!” she announced, and was greeted by a chorus of cheers.

Jill is the caseworker for Ron Skaggs, one of 350 homeless in downtown Long Beach surveyed as part of the Long Beach Homeless Connections Initiative in July. Ron is 60 years old, and was considered to be one of those most at-risk on the streets.

Ron was about to move into his own apartment after being homeless for 38 years.

This man had been homeless since before I was born. It was an unsettling realization to have as he led the way to the first home he’d had since he was 22 years old.

A mini entourage accompanied Ron to his building. Jill Horn, MSC coordinator Elsa Ramos, Greg Mellen and Steven Georges from the Long Beach Press-Telegram and myself all watched as he climbed his front steps for the first time. Jill—lugging a basket loaded with toiletries and home products—held out her hand.

“Here are your keys,” she said. In that two-second exchange, Ron wasn’t homeless anymore.

Unlocking the Door

It took a moment for him to navigate the key ring and locks. After 38 years without a front door, knowing which key opens the deadbolt doesn’t come naturally. But, once it was open, he proudly gave us the grand tour.

There wasn’t a lot of furniture in the one-bedroom apartment, but it had the basic makings of a home: A kitchen table, chairs, a couch, an as-yet-unassembled bed, kitchenware and a television that was going to be dropped off later that day, all of it donated by caring groups and individuals who wanted to help Ron set up his new place.

I’m not part of moments like this very often. My job involves a lot of typing on the computer and talking on the phone. I write press releases and work on events; I’m not on the front lines on a regular basis like outreach workers or case managers. As I watched Ron explore his home for the first time, I thought: Oh yeah, THIS is why I do what I do.

Sure, I’ve always “known” that what I do helps people…but that’s just not the same as actually leaving my desk behind for the day and watching someone literally step through a door, out of homelessness and into permanent housing. Someone who had been homeless my entire life, and then some. My computer and phone, patiently waiting for me back at the office, seemed to have a whole new sense of purpose.

As he stood in his living room, hugging Jill and Elsa goodbye, Ron looked a little overwhelmed by it all. After 38 years on the streets, who could blame him. But, even surrounded by new furniture and unfamiliar people, he was clearly grateful for the people and services that had made the day possible.

“A lot of people have helped me,” he said. “Thank you.”

 

Photo by MaydayKoigoStock.

 


Cali Zimmerman is the Communications & Development Associate at PATH Partners, as well as the editor of inforUm.