In 1990, we opened the Al Wooten Jr. Youth Center in honor of my cousin, killed in a drive-by shooting.
We had a simple premise: If the young man who murdered Al Wooten had been in an after-school program that afternoon he would not have been out there killing somebody.
For 14 years, while serving as executive director at the center, I witnessed firsthand the immense impact that a community organization can have in the neighborhood, from helping with homework and tutoring to engaging in activities that build life skills and prepare for college and careers. Working in partnership with parents, schools and other agencies, I felt a true sense of hope at the center because I saw student after student change behavior and achieve positive goals for their lives.
Over the past few years, I’ve been deeply troubled by another crisis in our community: the rise of homelessness. For about the past three years, I’ve seen more and more encampments set up on our street — Western Avenue between Manchester and Century boulevards. I’ve seen and talked to individuals who are homeless on park benches at St. Andrews Park, some waiting to return to the night shelters, some not knowing where they were going.
At the Wooten Center, instead of discarding any leftover snacks or supper we gave to the kids, we oftentimes give it to the husband and wife, seniors around the corner in the RV, to the men and women on the park benches or in the encampments, to the man sleeping on the ground in front of the liquor store.
We’ve also given referrals, usually by calling 211, for people who want shelter as well. Some say they are perfectly happy where they are and we have to respect that.
I recently attended a screening of “The Advocates,” a film about outreach workers providing housing assistance and support services for people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles. It shows a variety of people living on the streets, how they got there and how they recovered.
Hosted by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles’ Everyone In Campaign, the event helped me develop a more in-depth understanding of the historical origins of homelessness in Los Angeles. It also inspired me to get more involved.
The goal of the Everyone In campaign is to create support among communities for affordable and supportive housing in Los Angeles. It resonated with me for a lot of reasons, including the fact that Al Wooten Jr. was once homeless.
He had a surgery that prevented him from continuing his work as a house painter. He became addicted to the painkillers and, wanting to maintain his independence and avoid burdening his family, slept outside at one point, eventually moving into a cheap and dilapidated apartment downtown.
With counseling, referrals and other help from an agency, Justiceville Home for the Homeless, and financial support from his mother, our founder, Myrtle Faye Rumph, Al moved into a nice bachelor apartment near Adams and Crenshaw boulevards. He enrolled in school to become an unarmed security guard.
A gunman killed him some six months later in a reported gang initiation a few blocks from his new home.
Although it ended tragically, this can serve as a lesson about the value of partnerships in helping people recover from homelessness.
Recently, three of our families came to us on the brink of homelessness. Like so many in our city, they had fallen on hard times and suddenly were at risk of living on the streets. We could not help our three families alone.
All were headed by single moms who were unemployed. In one case, I brought a mom and son home with me for a few days. The mom had been laid off after the charter school where she worked closed. They stayed in a motel until their savings ran out.
In another case, one of our board members paid the outstanding motel bill after the establishment kicked out the family with their belongings. The mom had been unemployed since leaving her job to care for her sick daughter. They moved into the motel and very reluctantly came to us after their savings ran out.
Our board member also paid for them to stay at the motel while we found an agency to help for the long term. That agency was Jenesse Center, the oldest domestic violence shelter for women and children in South Central Los Angeles.
It provided counseling for the mom who had been in an abusive relationship. It gave her and her three children emergency shelter with food, clothing and more. It helped them find and set up an apartment with furniture and appliances.
Today, the family is still living in the apartment and doing well. The kids are in school, including one at UCLA. Mom is employed and recently finished her master’s degree in social work.
Experiences like these have taught me that agencies like the Wooten Center can at the least provide the connections people sometimes need to get back on their feet.
Our mission is to provide academic excellence for our students. But in the above cases, our students were barely able to do their schoolwork that day, not knowing where they would sleep that night.
In the coming months, I look forward to expanding Al Wooten Jr. Youth Center’s role in the fight to end homelessness. I am committed to helping in the long process of engaging our community to discern how we can achieve this.
As “The Advocates” screening reminded me, we can solve the homeless crisis in our communities if we do it together in earnest.
Naomi McSwain is executive director of the Al Wooten Jr. Youth Center in South Los Angeles.