Help comes in a lot of different ways for the homeless. Santa Monica has one of the best systems of care in the country. Good words can travel quite a distance. Just the other day a police officer from Brisbane, Australia came to town just to see, experience and take back what he learned about the multiple layers of empowerment that are being implemented here to help the homeless.
We have a good group of service providers who are working together from every direction imaginable. And they are all doing a great job. What caught my attention the other day was a bit unusual. Help came from a different direction.
There was a homeless man from France. Yeah, you read it right, France, who was living on the streets of Santa Monica. Even though he came from a long way away, his story was not atypical. He was just like many that we meet. He had a dream of coming to the West Coast, specifically Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Malibu, Venice Beach and of course Santa Monica. He had watched a lot of movies. It looked easy. He thought, “If I can just get there somehow lightning will strike and I will make it big.”
Many times their plans have a critical flaw. Money, and lack of it. Luc, the Frenchman, came to America to hopefully and quickly find a job, get an extension on his visa and become a star. As he began to realize that his money was running out, he started trying to find creative ways to stretch it out. He didn’t suddenly bottom out. It was a slow downward spiral that took almost two years. Then one morning he awoke covered in sand from head to toe after sleeping out on the beach all night during a wind storm. There he was, thin and cold.
We tried to help him many times but he was not ready to receive it. But now he was. Luc asked, “Can you help me go home?”
Because he had overstayed his visa, he knew that going home would mean that he would not be able to get another visa and come back to the states for 10 years. He changed his mind several times about going home, then one day he said, “I know I have to because no matter what I do here I will be illegal. I will never really be able to make a go of it.”
We began checking on plane tickets. We talked with his family in France. His parents were on a fixed income and very senior. They couldn’t help but wanted him home. We had found tickets in the $600 range. We started circling the wagons, as we call it, trying to figure out what resources were available. We were about $300 short after a couple of weeks of trying. Then there was the help that came from an unexpected place.
Word got out on the street that Luc was trying to get home. A friend of his, a homeless man, stepped forward and offered to give him everything that he had — his life savings of $300. Incredible!
Luc came with the money and met us at the canon by the entrance of the Santa Monica Pier. We thought it was a good day but somehow Luc didn’t seem that excited. He said that he just couldn’t do it. He was worried about his friend. He said that he just couldn’t take his money. It was all he had. I tried to encourage him, “Aren’t you going to get a job when you get home? When you get your first paycheck you can pay him back. Send me the money, I’ll make sure he gets it.”
Luc didn’t know what to do. He said he would let me know and turned and walked away. On the following day he was back waiting for us at the canon by the pier at 10 a.m. He was smiling. He said, “You will not believe this, but my friend will not let me give the money back.” His friend had said, “No way, man, I gave you that money to go home. It is a gift. I don’t want you to pay me back. Your family needs you and you need to go home.”
A few days later, on our way to LAX, the mood was elevated. Luc was very encouraged about seeing his parents again and starting over. He said that even though it had not worked out like he had planned, it had been a positive experience. He said that some of the best lessons that he had learned were recent. One of the biggest was that, “Americans are exceptional people, even the homeless!”
I spoke with Luc and his father a few days later. We have also e-mailed each other several times since.
He is moving forward again.
Ron Hooks is the founder and executive director of West Coast Care, a nonprofit. WCC is part of the Santa Monica Police Department’s Joint Homeless Outreach Program. Since October 2006, more than 1,000 homeless have been compassionately helped to transition off of the streets of Santa Monica by reconnecting them with their families, placing them into housing and/or treatment programs. Learn more at westcoastcare.org.