Local Advocacy Group Gives the Homeless a Leg Up, Not a Handout—One Relationship at a Time
By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor
Every weekend and occasion- ally a day or two during the week, Nora Vela and her boyfriend Fernando Escobedo load up an old 1973 Volkswagen van with survival supplies, including hot, homemade meals, socks and hygiene kits. “Rolling Thunder,” as Vela metaphorically calls her van, is a welcome sight for sore eyes to people who are struggling with homelessness and living in makeshift encampments.
Vela found Rolling Thunder on Craigslist four years ago. Barely operable, the 40-year-old vehicle was missing a windshield, the sliding side door was rusted shut, and when driven, it—in Vela’s words “farted” black smoke every few miles.
But it had a few things going for it.
“The interior was mostly immaculate considering it was used as a storage space for junk,” Vela said. “But it was a piece of shit on wheels.”
She bought the bus for $1,500, but Vela estimates she poured about $7,000 into it for repairs and renovations, and a whole lot of hours of love and sweat. Now, it’s a reliable source of transportation. It has a DVD player with a surround sound system, a table and space for a queen-size bed.
On weekdays, Vela is an artist, crafter and entrepreneur. She creates original items, from handmade dolls to mounted assemblage works, which she sells at her booth at Crafted at the Port of Los Angeles. Weekends and any other spare moments she has are devoted to procuring food, clothing and other supplies through donations or otherwise, to be distributed to people in need.
Vela and her crew, her boyfriend Escobedo and Vela’s 15-year-old son, Augustin, generally visit three to four homeless encampment sites each night, spending enough time at each location to catch up with the people living there with whom they’ve formed friendships.
Vela said they began with 12 tacos from Del Taco, which they bought after a homeless person asked them for food. Seeing a need, the crew of three began handing out more tacos. Their deliveries quickly went from 12 tacos to a couple of deep trays of food.
In an age where social media users routinely try to capture video of people living on the streets doing something socially unacceptable, so they can complain about it with virtual friends, Vela chooses to engage people struggling with homelessness, offering them meals and friendship.
I joined Vela and Escobedo on one of their weekend excursions around the Harbor Area.
At the time, Mayor Eric Garcetti was being raked over the coals by both sides of the debate about what to do about the growing number of homeless people in San Pedro. This, after the mayor allowed two anti-homeless ordinances to pass by the Los Angeles City Council without signing them.
The new ordinances include reducing the time authorities have to remove bulk items that pile up on sidewalks from 72 hours to 24 hours, and a ban on sleeping in vehicles on city streets between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. without a permit. The permit would only be granted if the applicant also received services from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and other regional providers through the Coordinated Entry System.
The Coordinated Entry System and the Homeless Family Solutions, respectively, serve individuals and families who are homeless. Both entities engage, keep track of and coordinate Section 8 housing and other services in Los Angeles County. Each of eight service planning areas have a lead agency that coordinates with various aid agencies to connect homeless people to services and get them into permanent housing. Harbor Interfaith Services is the lead agency for Service Planning Area 8, which encompasses the southernmost regions of Los Angeles County including Inglewood, Carson and the San Pedro Peninsula.
Vela, Escobedo and Augustin are the core of the local outfit of volunteers that regularly visit the homeless in San Pedro. Though there are others who hand out food in the community, Vela and her crew of volunteers have formed tight-knit bonds with the folks who sleep in encampments at the post office on Beacon Street, Anderson Park, Jack In The Box on Gaffey at 6th streets and the area near the railroad tracks by the 110 Freeway underpass.
Vela makes it a point to prepare healthy homemade meals. She says she spends about $40 to feed 40 to 50 people. Each of these meals include a main entrée, water and dessert. On at least a couple of occasions, she has hosted dessert and root beer float parties to celebrate the birthdays of her homeless friends.
“We make sure they are following up with people,” said Vela, referring to service providers in Service Planning Area 8. “The 60- or 70-year-old veterans… no one can come out and do it? But yet [a diabetic] dog can get insulin and have his glucose checked twice a day and have expensive specialized food for diabetic dogs and have nice water, but [a veteran] has to live in squalor?”
Vela was referring to a veteran who was living the near the railroad tracks with his friendly 2-year-old pitbull. She noted that the man had been dealing with significant health issues, and at the time, to her knowledge, had not been reached by a case manager of any sort.
One of the first persons I interviewed was a 60-something homeless woman who asked to be called “Julie” for this story. She had been sleeping in the immediate vicinity of China Cook Express restaurant and Jack In The Box on Gaffey Street with her dog.
“I used to live in my van for about three years,” Julie explained after finishing the dinner Vela brought her.
She had a string of bad luck and circumstances: her boyfriend went to jail and her van broke down a few times, until it just wasn’t operable.
“So I’ve been living out here with my dog; It’s a little hard,” she said. “People think you’re out here because you want to be out here. But you don’t really want to be out here. Some people give you problems and some don’t. Some are pretty lenient. There are a lot of people [who] are willing to help you out here.”
Julie was fairly well-informed about a measure going through the state legislature that would have forbidden local municipalities from enforcing bans on sleeping in cars. The Los Angeles City Council passed a resolution opposing the legislation unless there was an amendment that would allow local municipalities to enforce the permitting for vehicles used for sleeping.
Julie said if she still had her van and the council indeed passed the law, it’s unlikely she’d be able to afford the permit. Last month, she lost her wallet with her identification card and other important documents. That caused a lapse in paperwork needed for her to collect a Supplementary Security Income check. Now she has to renew all of that paperwork.
“Harbor Interfaith can help me get a new I.D. for $8, but I may need that $8 for me and my dog to eat,” Julie said. “And, we need other things aside from food.”
She doesn’t have a carrier for her dog, which makes it difficult to get on the bus to go to the social services office to apply for general relief, unless she gets a ride there.
Julie said she rescued her dog from an abusive situation and would rather stay homeless than give up her companion.
She acknowledges that there are all sorts of programs that could help get her into permanent housing, but none flexible enough to allow her to keep her dog.
It’s important to maintain relationships when serving the homeless community, Vela said.
“We all create bonds with different people and it reintegrates them back into society,” Vela said. “It’s what they need. It’s amazing how they blossom with time.”
Another person I interviewed was 56-year-old Tony Esquivel, who can often be found at Anderson Park. Vela often has lunch with him and has, on occasion, invited him to her home for dinner and allowed him to bathe in her bathroom.
He takes pride in the fact he doesn’t look disheveled or dirty, managing to stay relatively clean without carrying a lot a lot of his possessions around with him, so that people don’t notice that he is living in the streets. He credits this with his ability pick up short-term jobs.
Even without Vela’s help, Esquivel knows where to get food and other resources, but keeping up appearances, not looking like he’s homeless, is difficult.
“Being homeless doesn’t feel good. A lot of people like to get up and shower and do what they have to do. Here, wherever you wake up at, you have to think about… ‘I know I have to take a shower, but where?’ Cabrillo Beach is too far.”
Esquivel was originally from Corona in Riverside County. He said a couple of years ago his family got together and decided to do an intervention and sent him to a Christian rehabilitation center.
“I was heavy into drugs [when] my sister, my mom and dad had a meeting and they…shipped me to Wilmington to a men’s Christian home,” Esquivel said. “I stayed there three years and five months.”
At some point, a director at the home befriended Esquivel and allowed him to stay in his garage for three months.
When the three months were up, he was homeless again, until another man allowed him to stay in his garage for $100 per month. He then got romantically involved with a woman and followed her to Palmdale. Shortly after moving, his girlfriend gave him $35 to leave. He came back to the Harbor Area.
“The people who have jobs and have homes, it’s just a matter of time,” he said. “Right now they look down at us. But we’re normal people like they are. They got the money right now, but watch, one of these days their time is going to end and they will be homeless and they will feel what we feel.”
Esquivel lamented that Hope Chapel—a church known for feeding the homeless before the building was sold and turned into a charter school—did not become a transitional housing location.
“If they wanted homeless people off the streets, they could have opened it there,” he said. “But…city councilman and the chamber…said no…yet, they’re still complaining about it. If they are complaining about the problem and they want to get rid of the problem then why don’t they do something about it?”
Later, I asked Vela to comment on the attitude among some members of the general public that what she does “enables” the homeless to continue being homeless.
“To folks who say that the homeless could get off the street if they wanted, [I say,] ‘No, they can’t,’” Vela said. “When you have people on the street that are dealing with mental and physical health issues…those are huge obstacles to getting off the streets. I’ve helped people who are diabetic, I’ve helped people who are bipolar or are schizophrenic or are on Paxil dealing with anxiety and depression. You name it. It’s out there.”
The Source of Nora’s Fire
Vela says her upbringing is the main reason why she does what she does. She knows firsthand the connection between foster care and homelessness.
She grew up poor in an abusive household. For Vela, her aunt’s downstairs apartment was her safe haven.
“We didn’t have money,” she recalled. “My mom couldn’t even keep food in the fridge. I mean, it would be iffy if she even got out of bed because of her depression. Then she would blame me and have me hit for it.
“I noticed that all the neighborhood kids didn’t have money, and I didn’t have money to buy candy and hardly a toy between them.”
Vela said she had to learn at an early age how to earn money. She recalled how at the age of 6, she began selling painted rocks and bags of peanuts for 50 cents.
Vela was placed in 29 foster homes before landing in the care of foster parents that she was able to trust and love as her family.
“I’ve been raped, molested; my shit has been stolen in foster care,” Vela said. “I’ve coordinated mass escapes from foster care…I was one of those kids.
“Throughout my life I found that I was going to do what I wanted to do, and I wasn’t going to allow anybody to get in my way.”
Vela recalled graduating at the top of her class at UEI College to become a medical assistant, with two jobs and 1-year-old Augustin in tow. She was also homeless.
Vela paid babysitters to watch her toddler by let them sleep over, while she spent the majority of her time going to class and working two jobs.
Life, on balance, got better although she had two more children with an abusive husband whom she ultimately left. She remarried a Marine, who served three tours in Iraq. When he was deployed she spent her time crafting items for sale, cooking large healthy meals for the kids at the military base and also for the homeless.
Advocating for foster children and the homeless has been Vela’s lifelong passion. And that passion is spreading.
Wilmington residents following Vela’s Facebook page, “Helping Homeless in Need—San Pedro”—have reached out to her to create a group in Wilmington. Membership on the page has been growing exponentially since it started July 20.
It looks like Wilmington will soon have its own Rolling Thunder.
For information on how to donate food, supplies or your time visit Helping the Homeless in San Pedro on Facebook.