DOWNTOWN — Before she was homeless, Ruth McKnight was a victim of domestic violence. She had quit her job at a non-profit in downtown Los Angeles, because she said, “I couldn’t keep going to work with bruises on my arms.”

Eventually, McKnight separated from the man who had abused her, but with no source of income and a baby on the way, McKnight was left in a difficult situation.

“I had to hit rock bottom,” McKnight, 35, said. “When you hit that bottom, you have no choice but to do things differently.”

McKnight has come a long way since her days on the streets. She’s employed and has created a stable living environment for her 4-year-old daughter.

“Really all it takes is one person to believe in you and take an interest in you — to believe that you are capable of doing something that you can not see at the moment,” said McKnight.

She was one of 25 individuals honored on Oct. 29 at the 15th annual Westside Shelter & Hunger Coalition’s Celebrating Success Breakfast, an event recognizing the accomplishments of formerly homeless individuals and community organizations dedicated to alleviating the problem.

“Many of our honorees are people who have been scorned or shunned, and not recognized for a long time or ever at all. So it’s wonderful to be in a room with 500 people acknowledging you as a person,” said John Maceri, chairperson of the coalition and executive director of Ocean Park Community Center (OPCC).

“[Winning the award is] something I can’t put in words. People had a standing ovation for us. Me, who was taking baths in the ocean two years ago, wearing the same clothes for five to six days. Me, who panhandled and wasn’t a good mother,” said Robin Higginbotham, 56, who was nominated by the CLARE Foundation, a community center for the homeless.

Two years ago, Higginbotham never imagined that she would love herself.

“I was busted and disgusted and couldn’t be trusted,” said Higginbotham, who has had a long history of alcoholism and family violence. “I can look in the mirror and say, ‘I love you Robin,’ … I could never do it before. I never thought I was worthy.”

At the awards ceremony, Common Ground, a HIV community center, and Step Up on Second, a nonprofit center dedicated to helping mentally ill homeless people, were awarded $5,409 under the Marianne Dorn Memorial Dolphin Change grant.

“We are so happy to be able to continue to do this work,” Maceri said. “[We] really feel honored to be part of a community that really does value the lives of all of us, including homeless people.”

After losing her home in 2007, McKnight sought help at a maternity shelter in Venice, which eventually referred her to Upward Bound House. The organization provided her an apartment to raise her baby and case management services. Today, she works as the director of community affairs at the Los Angeles Center for Positive Change and rents a one-bedroom apartment, where she raises her 4-year-old daughter.

Tina Hill, a case manager at Upward Bound House, believes that McKnight sets an encouraging example.

“I’m just a bystander, rooting her on, being her biggest fan, just doing my regular daily job,” said Hill, who was assigned to McKnight. “It’s very moving, the fact that she actually did all the work.”

In addition to the support at Upward Bound House, McKnight cites the desire to become a role model for her daughter as a primary motivation.

When her name was called in the last group of honorees, McKnight, in a red dress and flowers in her hair, spoke about how the support she received helped her finish her master’s degree in clinical psychology and move into her own place.

“There is nothing like being able to walk in the world with your head held high … and to be in touch with one’s dignity, regardless of where you come from, where you’ve been or where you’re going,” she said.

After the ceremony, McKnight was surrounded by attendees offering hugs and congratulations.

A woman who had waited patiently for McKnight’s attention said, “You had my whole table crying.”

For more information, westsideshelter.org.

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