While at MacArthur Park Mary Simmons, left, Ishqa Hillman, center, and Pam Chotiswatdi talk about searching for their friend who disappeared. The three women are part of Project Dignity, an outreach program for homeless people at the Park in Long Beach, Thursday, March 30, 2023. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.
Thank you Jeremiah Dubrock and the LB Post for sharing our story and fight for Goddaughter. We invite you to read the article here: https://lbpost.com/news/missing-homeless-woman-goddaughter-project-dignity This rest of this post provides a little more personal insight as to why this work matters so much to us.
For over a year now LB PECC through Project Dignity has been helping our neighbors in MacArthur Park access food and other resources. These people have become important to us, they are our friends and we care what happens to them. We don't always know their government names but that information isn't important to our work as we pass out food to the hungry, or socks and shoes to the shoeless. Their need is our focus, their stories are theirs to keep or share as they will. Many come to us unable to speak english and some are unable to speak at all.
Two weeks ago one of our friends went missing from the park. We call her "Goddaughter"as she had previously named another man "Godfather" and wasn't always able to communicate clearly her own name. She is a beautiful young woman despite the hardship she also wears. Her "homes" are always larger than expected and always with flair of some sort, her artistic ability always shining through.
Goddaughter is unpredictable, some days she is "not in the mood" and others enjoys seeing what new clothes are available. She is slight and I oftened wondered how she fared out here alone. I always wonder about how they ended up here. After searching for her for over a week with no word until an arrest record was shared dated 3/17/23 with her description and a name.
I googled that name and found out that Goddaughter has been on the streets since 2019. She suffered a miscarriage from the stress of being thrown out of her home by her mother and sister. She had a few petty crimes from being on the streets and then one more serious charge that appears to be more of a family dispute than anything. She was not given the help most expect to come from family or friends and even her pastor abused her. When she attempted to get help from a local shelter she was turned away for unclear reasons and gave up trying.
When I was 12 years old I became houseless. My home had always been abusive and I had experienced every kind by the time I was 5 years old. My mother was never safe and my father only safe when it suited him. Decades later my own daughter and I would watch the tv series Shameless and began referring to my father as "Frank" to most easily explain him to others. "That's him, minus the drugs" we would say. His chaotic approach to marriage and parenting led to a miserable marriage between him and my overly domineering and controlling "Mommy Dearest." They quickly and not at all quietly divorced when I was 6.
I was used to being beaten by my mother. I had begged repeatedly to live with my father and even other family members but it always ended up like the dreams where you are crying for help and no one hears you or no sound comes out to make the cry. I had given up until my dad brought a new girlfriend into our lives when I was 12 who saw the marks on my body and made a call to Child Protection Services. The next thing I knew I was being interviewed at school, the marks notated, and I was told before they left that "She won't do that anymore."
That afternoon I went home from school, called my mother like I was supposed to and she said to me "When I get home we are having a nice long talk." I was so relieved. The only sounds that night was of her highest pair of high heels hitting the skin of my back, buttocks and thighs and my sobs begging her to stop. A month later the church (afraid they would also be held complicit) convinced my mother to let me live with my dad in Oakland.
The first time I stayed on the streets alone was just a few months later. My dad had driven me to Santa Cruz where we thought we would spend the day with my younger sister but she and my mother were not in town so he took me to downtown Santa Cruz and left me with a one way ticket back to Oakland and two rolls of quarters. He said "Come home when you run out of these." Five days later I walked into our apartment in Alameda where he was watching tv and drinking a beer on the couch and he says "Shit kid, I thought you would be back days ago." I would have been had it not been for the homeless community in Santa Cruz teaching me to panhandle, where was safe to sleep (not really) and how to move around unnoticed when you are a too young white girl living on the streets.
Throughout the course of the next 3 years I found myself sleeping in the Greyhound station in Oakland more times than I could count. It was always warm, the lights were always on and no one ever noticed me. I stayed on the move from Oakland to Santa Cruz until my mother called the police with false charges to get me picked up. It didn't really work in her favor, or mine. Instead I ended up in juvenile halls and group homes with girls whose history was even harder than mine and who were certainly angrier.
Life is always a mix of opportunity and ability. Eventually I ended up in a group home and was given an opportunity to thrive - which I took hungrily. I had 2 years of a normal childhood before my mother took me from the group home and made me homeless as a senior in high school. I had thought I would finish my last year with her and celebrated having accomplished so much I could go home. I was home for 3 months before she kicked me out on my own to finish high school. I had returned to the town my group home was in but was unable to complete senior year with my class due to not knowing how to balance caring for myself with the responsibilities of school. Instead, I got strep throat and was forced to drop out although I managed to get my diploma after only a few months of continuation school.
It's not been easy since. I learned many things the hard way, one of the hardest lessons was walking away from my family in my thirties because they were still impacting my ability to thrive and now my daughter's. It was a difficult decision because I had always wanted family and wanted it even more for my daughter I was raising on my own.
When I look at Goddaughter's old facebook I see a woman with the same resourcefulness, and creativity. The same desire to surround yourself with beauty even if for a moment. The same grief at not feeling more important to someone, anyone. The same cries for help and cries to inspire others with the words we needed most to hear. The same style of poetry - dark and pregnant with pain and yet still hopeful one day, some day we will overcome.
I have, she hasn't. Yet. Her story isn't over. We are currently working on being able to visit Goddaughter and have been contacting our local city prosecutor and the public defender's office leaving emails and voicemails she is cared about and that we want to advocate for her and just make sure she is treated fairly. Her own attorneys have stated they don't think she is mentally capable of understanding court proceedings. What happened to that woman who was determined to overcome?
Yesterday during outreach, a houseless man named David shared his recent experience in Los Angeles. David was arrested for causing damage to a BMW as it swerved to miss hitting him in the street and instead caught the end of his walking stick. David was coerced to accept a plea so he could return to the cat he had been caring for. He had wanted to fight it but was advised he could sit in jail up to 18 months waiting for the trial and so he sacrificed his own life for that of the cat. David now is serving 2 years probation and owes $1500 restitution - for a scratch made on a car that nearly took his life.
However will our houseless become anything more when the system works so hard to destroy or even erase them? We appreciate journalists like Jeremiah Dubrock for giving us the ability to share the work and about our Goddaughter and for his insight into the true state of homelessness in Long Beach. There are many more like Goddaughter, too many. Many live on the streets due to disability, mental illness and a lack of support. If being cold and hungry and alone is the better choice, consider for a moment what could be worse. That is what many on the streets came from and what they need and deserve help to overcome.
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