For the ‘Wizard’ and others, supportive homes are their castles

“Michael Angel, “The Wizard” in his apartment at the Trudy and Norman Louis Apartments in Sunland. Wizard was homeless for more than 20 years before moving into the complex which was built by LA Family Housing for chronically homeless adults. ( Photo by David Crane/Los Angeles Daily News ) “

With more than 40,000 homeless people living on the streets of Los Angeles, the need for permanent, supportive housing is growing, especially for those with mental illness. But the issue is tricky because some neighborhoods don’t want those housing units around.  They say those who are still addicted to drugs may resort to crimes.  Other supportive residences are placed in rough areas where there are high crime rates and temptation is always around.  I met a few people who who were placed in supportive homes in the San Fernando Valley, who said they are grateful and were trying to stay away from trouble, but some neighbors still had doubts. From my story (Daily News, November 2014): 

The man who calls himself The Wizard says he feels as if a magical force pulled him up from years of living down and out on the streets of the San Fernando Valley.

How else, he said one recent day, can he explain how he went from sleeping on a sidewalk in Pacoima  to stretching out on a brand new bed in his own studio apartment.

“I’m The Wizard because no one can defeat me,” the 55-year-old man proclaimed, stabbing the air with a stick to simulate a sword fight. “But I don’t want to fight no more. I’m not young no more.”

The Wizard said he earned his name, like his long gray beard, through the street smarts and wisdom he gathered while living on the edges of the Angeles National Forest or on the sidewalks of Pacoima. But he also uses that name because he has no traceable identification: no social security card, no driver’s license. Volunteers and those with L.A. Family Housing saw The Wizard, homeless for years and aging, as the kind of person who would benefit from living at a newly built permanent supportive housing complex in Tujunga.

Michael Angel,
Michael Angel, “The Wizard” in the outdoor patio at the Trudy and Norman Louis Apartments in Sunland. Wizard was homeless for more than 20 years before moving into the complex which was built by LA Family Housing for chronically homeless adults. ( Photo by David Crane/Los Angeles Daily News )

Called the Trudy & Norman Louis Apartments, the 45-unit building is one of two opened by L.A. Family Housing in the San Fernando Valley that provides housing to the chronically homeless and the most vulnerable among them. They are the men and women who are most likely to die on the streets. The tenants, mostly single, receive on-site supportive services to help with mental issues, alcohol and drug addiction or chronic illnesses. In return, they pay 30 percent of their monthly government checks and adhere to rules typical of any other housing complex.

Although tenants moved in over the summer, a formal grand opening will be held Monday at 11:30 a.m. at 7639 Day St.

“We made a concerted outreach effort in the community before we did anything,” said Stephanie Klasky-Gamer, president and CEO of L.A. Family Housing, based in North Hollywood. Klasky-Gamer said staff from the agency first came to Sunland-Tujunga to let the homeless know that various services were available to them. While in the community, she said she discovered that the area had its own kind of homelessness, especially in the Tujunga Wash.

‘RURAL HOMELESSNESS’

For decades, men and women and even families have lived along the Tujunga Wash, a rural area at the edge of the Angeles National Forest. Some who live there are part of a cycle of homelessness that has drawn complaints about lawlessness. Others are couples or locals with pets who have no other housing options.

“What I saw here was different than anywhere else,” Klasky-Gamer said. “I call it rural homelessness.”

The two-story garden-style complex on Day Street includes a computer lab and courtyard with planter boxes and a dog run. All units are fully furnished.

“The Trudy and Norman Louis Apartments in Sunland. The complex was built by LA Family Housing for chronically homeless adults. ( Photo by David Crane/Los Angeles Daily News ) “

A similar complex was opened years before in Sun Valley. But before the Tujunga project moved forward, Klasky-Gamer said the community had to be comfortable with it.

“This has been an extraordinary community,” she said. “When they invited us to do outreach in the Wash, they felt very protective of the homeless. They said these are our homeless.”

Cindy Cleghorn, a board member of the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council and president of the local chamber of commerce, agreed that L.A. Family Housing was careful when developing the project in a residential neighborhood.

“We had obstacles with some people, because they misunderstood and thought it was a shelter,” Cleghorn said. “But we’re a good-hearted community.”

Cleghorn said most of the issues were addressed by Klasky-Gamer, although the neighborhood council had hoped more people from the area would be residents at the Day Street apartments.

About half of the units are subsidized through a Los Angeles County Department of Health Services program called Housing for Health. It focuses on the homeless who are more likely to be frequent users of emergency services at local hospitals, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars each year. To alleviate that spending, the county diverted some of that funding toward housing.

“We’re really trying to make a dent in this population that comes in and out of the emergency room, and do something that is very effective which is supportive housing, to help them become healthier citizens of Los Angeles,” said Marc Trotz, director for Housing for Health.

The program is still new. So far, 700 such units have been subsidized through the county program. The goal is to have 10,000. Funding comes from various sources, including the Department of Health Services and the Hilton Foundation, which donated $4 million, Trotz said.

“It’s impossible to recover when you’re homeless. It’s heartbreaking,” Trotz said. “People who have been written off as near death spring back to life when they have a home.”

DYING ALONG THE BANKS

That’s how Patrick Piercey came to live on Day Street. Volunteers with L.A. Family Housing found him as he lay dying along the parched banks of the Tujunga Wash, with his 4-year-old pit bull terrier named Blue nearby.

Even in the heat of summer and drought, pneumonia had moved into Piercey’s lungs, and he could no longer walk to the 7-Eleven for food or maintain his tent where he had lived. Bone thin and tired, Piercey thought he was living his last days. He was taken to the emergency department of Olive View-UCLA Medical Center in Sylmar, but he had nowhere to recover.

“This place is great,” Piercey, 58, said in a quiet voice. “I still have a hard time believing I’m here. When I moved in, they had a lot of people, and they gave me a basket with things I needed. It gets me choked up thinking about it.”

Blue is happy too, he said.

“He loves the air conditioning,” Piercey said.

“Lucille Hawkins-Walker loves the patio in her apartment at the Trudy and Norman Louis Apartments in Sunland. Hawkins-Walker lived on the street before moving into the complex which was built by LA Family Housing for chronically homeless adults. ( Photo by David Crane/Los Angeles Daily News ) “

Lucille Hawkins-Walker, 60, was living on a bus bench in the San Fernando Valley where servers from the local Denny’s brought her coffee every morning. She and her brother lost their home in Apple Valley two years ago, she said, and her family couldn’t care for her. She’s lived at the new complex for three months, but each time she walks through the door, she feels like she’s seeing it again for the first time.

“Did you see how big that bathroom is?” she asked visitors one recent day. “You could have a party in there.”

Klasky-Gamer said there is a waiting list of people who live in temporary housing who hope to move into Day Street, and a similar project is underway in North Hollywood.

As for The Wizard, whose name on his key card reads Michael Angel Ambriz, which he calls himself, he likes that he has his own place, where he can come home, read his world history books in peace, wake up early, take his bike and go out to the streets to collect recyclables for money.

“I think what they did is a real humanitarian deed,” he said of those who built the apartment complex. “This building may not look like a castle. But this room, this is my castle.”

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