DOWNTOWN — In a light, musical voice, Felix Garcia told a crowd of onlookers a harsh tale of failed hope, shattered dreams and ultimate redemption.
Garcia, 57, crossed the country with plans to set his life up for success in bustling Los Angeles. He started a cleaning business, and all seemed well until a history of mental illness compounded by the stress of his company pushed Garcia to the breaking point.
“I walked away from everything that I had, and I ended up on Skid Row,” Garcia said. “I did that for 12 years.”
With the help of Santa Monica-based OPCC’s Safe Haven project, which targets the chronically homeless with mental disabilities, Garcia completed a peer mental health training program and became an advocate for others.
He moved into his own apartment in February 2011, and he’ll soon graduate from the Green Garden Academy and become a general contractor.
“It feels great to be here,” Garcia said. “It’s an honor to be here.”
Garcia was one of 23 people recognized Friday at the 16th Annual Celebrating Success breakfast, an effort of the Westside Shelter & Hunger Coalition to applaud individuals that have triumphed over adversity and left their lives on the streets behind.
Poverty and homeless are daunting problems in the Los Angeles community, Va Lecia Adams, chair of the coalition and executive director of the St. Joseph Center, told an audience of nearly 500 community leaders, business owners and service providers.
Approximately 46 million people live in poverty in the United States. In Los Angeles County alone, over 51,000 people sleep on the street, according to the 2011 Homeless Count.
Friday’s event was about celebrating the victories rather than looking at the overwhelming work ahead, Adams said.
“Were here to tell a different story, one of success despite the numbers,” Adams said.
Successes like that of Pari Lucero-Atwell, nominated by the CLARE Foundation, who works as a parent advocate in an office in Marina del Rey. From her office window, Lucero-Atwell can see the tip of Venice, where she was homeless for many years.
Five years ago, Lucero-Atwell was living in a broken car in Lancaster, Calif. about to give birth to her third child, which she eventually delivered while under the influence.
Her time at CLARE taught her how to “suit up and show up” on a daily basis. She’s now reunited with her children.
“I have an obligation to my community and my children to show that this does work,” Lucero-Atwell said.
The two dozen men and women lined up and received their recognition to the sound of hundreds of hands clapping in celebration of their success.
One woman, Shelley Harris, honored by the Edelman Westside Mental Health Center, gave a shout-out from the stage to one group that she credited with her presence at the breakfast.
“If it weren’t for the Santa Monica Police Department, I wouldn’t be alive today,” Harris said.
The words touched members of the SMPD present for the event, like Officer Robert Martinez, a 12-year veteran of the Homeless Liaison Program (HLP).
Hearing stories of success and watching people they helped off the street is heartening for members of the HLP team, he said.
“All too often in police work, you never see the result, what happens because of your work,” Martinez said. “I wish more officers had the opportunity to see the impact of what they do every day.”
The formerly homeless were not the only ones getting recognition Friday.
The Upward Bound House Family Place received a Dolphin Change Program grant for $5,920 to continue its work supporting families on their way to housing.
After the awards were delivered and the honorees had their photo ops, the New Directions Choir broke out into a soulful rendition of “How Sweet it is to be Loved By You” as the audience backed them up with rhythmic clapping.
It was a shared moment, with people from all backgrounds who had overcome all manner of trials enjoyed the skillfully-executed melody together.
“We can work together to overcome adversity, no matter how high. As we leave today, remember that homelessness happens to individuals,” Adams told the audience.