In the San Fernando Valley and throughout LA county the number of people without a stable roof over their heads continues to grow.
Those experiencing homelessness are from every walk of life and never expected to be among the growing statistics. They often feel alone and overwhelmed, searching for ways to meet the most basic needs. For many, their day can be taken up searching for a place that will allow them to use the restroom and a place to wash up, counting change for a meal and finding a safe place to stay warm to rest and sleep.
Those without a home are of every age — small children to senior citizens who can’t pay rent on a meager social security check, injured veterans, men and women who have been downsized and have lost their jobs and don’t have friends or family that can take them in.
There are those suffering from mental and physical illnesses who aren’t able to work and those who are caught in the web of substance abuse.
Whatever their circumstances, the safety net they may have had at one time has fallen through and is no longer there for them.
And we all rush past them every day.
But then, there are others like Don Larson, Laura Rathbone and her twin sister Alycia Rathbone who don’t ignore them. They make eye contact and stop to ask what they can do to help.
By taking the time to spare a moment in their day to have a simple conversation, they’ve found that those holding signs at freeway exits and pushing shopping carts filled with meager belongings are “our neighbors,” who more times than not grew up alongside them in the same valley communities.
So, they found ways to directly offer their unhoused neighbors a hand.
Sisters On the Street
While driving her son to school one morning, Alycia noticed a woman by an RV and took a moment to talk to her. What began as a conversation turned into a daily visit to bring her homeless neighbor breakfast, which turned into helping her to find a job and a place to live.
It wasn’t a quick or easy task. It took Alycia calling over 200 apartment complexes to find one willing to offer a unit. With housing, the woman secured a job and now the tables are turned, and she now stops to visit Alycia and her sister Laura, and sometimes attends a women’s support group that they started.
With that experience, the twins started “Sisters On The Street,” and Laura soon discovered that many homeless women go without feminine hygiene supplies.
“No one should have to make a decision about whether to buy a meal or buy tampons,” Laura said. “In addition to the feminine products, we let others know that there is a need for travel-size toiletries and new female underwear.”
The Sisters On the Street has built a team of volunteers who collect feminine hygiene supplies and distribute them at community “Connect Days” each month.
“They’ve created awareness by speaking and encouraging others to donate,” Laura said. “We go to high schools and talk about menstruation with students as a topic that shouldn’t cause embarrassment, and now there are valley schools that are holding their own feminine hygiene collection drives.”
Clean Streets Clean Starts
Don Larson is a hard guy to miss.
Sixty-seven years old, sporting a big burly beard, pedaling a makeshift flat bed, Larson rides through the valley’s streets. Like a pied piper he always has a group of people on foot behind him sweeping up piles of trash collected on sidewalks and in gutters. Larson said by his appearance, people “might think he’s homeless himself.” With those he has recruited who are living on the valley’s streets, he hauls large loads of trash. Together, they’re cleaning up local neighborhoods.
Most people don’t realize that his team is homeless. In exchange for their work, Larson pays them with their choice of $25 gas cards or gift cards. It’s a successful boots-on-the-ground effort that Larson first began at Parthenia and Reseda in Northridge that has spread to larger areas including San Fernando Mission Boulevard in the Northeast San Fernando Valley.
“It helps to change their routines and from there we can start conversations and refer them to services and programs that can help them,” Larson said.
“Even after we’ve left an area, we find that they continue to keep the area clean. It gives them something to wake up for.”
Larson, along with Alycia and Laura, all point out that those who find themselves homeless are deserving of dignity and understanding.
David Meza, public affairs manager at Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas) offered the company’s support and awarded both organizations with grants after hearing about “Clean Streets Clean Starts” and “Sisters On The Street.”
“We didn’t even go to them, they came to us,” said Laura. “This grant has been a tremendous help especially because it allowed us to decide how to utilize the funds, so we were able to purchased gas cards for those living in their cars and purchase supplies for our woman’s support group.
“Whatever we’re doing with political support or not, just do it, whether you have a 501C, or you have money, or not, just start something and your community will provide. Just take that first step to do whatever you can.”
Meza said offering grants is the best part of his job.
“It’s an honor to partner with organizations that provide much needed support to our fellow brothers and sisters that have difficulty making ends meet in a high-cost city like Los Angeles,” he said. “It’s also a privilege to lead the way for SoCalGas to identify opportunities in the same communities we serve. Doing this type of work is my favorite part of my job because I get to see the results that SoCalGas’ support provides. We are all part of this community.”