Heart of the Harbor volunteers served food to homeless people and community members this past October at Banning. Featured photo by Slobodan Dimitrov
Wilmington Grassroots Effort Tackles Homelessness
By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor
Our present discourse on homelessness and how to address it has many problems. But the most glaring parts of that discourse make distinctions between the deserving and undeserving poor, and the classification of homeless advocates as “bleeding hearts.”
Local social media pages are filled with posts by amateur gumshoe detectives. Armed with smartphones and snacks, they spend evenings staked out in their vehicles on dark corners tracking and filming the movements of homeless encampments, serial panhandlers and suspected bike thieves.
Some do their part by holding up signs reminding motorists to “give a hand up, not a hand out”—ironically on the same street corner where the San Pedro Neighbors for Peace and Justice demonstrators had maintained their vigil against the Iraq war for all those years.
Others, like David Gonzales and Nikki Fabela, feed the hungry and provide them with needed supplies in Wilmington.
The Dispatcher, the ILWU newspaper, recently published a profile on Gonzales, a guard in ILWU Local 26, and his group’s work feeding and connecting homeless people to resources.
I was aware of his effort when Random Lengths published “Here Comes Rolling Thunder” this past June. The profile featured Nora Vela and the San Pedro-based Helping the Homeless in Need. Though the groups initially shared the same name, their efforts were independently grown.
Gonzales wasn’t happy that the tiny homes controversy this past July took over the debate on how to address homelessness in the Harbor Area. He noted that after a Sept. 3 homeless forum at the Warner Grand Theatre, homeless people became targets of increased sweeps with physical attacks and a general free-for-all vilification of the homeless on social media. Many homeless people at their regular haunts were cleared out, including some at a longstanding encampment near the Longshore Dispatch Hall in Wilmington.
“It’s my opinion that the forum put the entire Harbor Area homeless population into exile,” Gonzales said. It’s like now all of a sudden the thing to do is to bash the homeless people. They were actually throwing rocks at the little houses. The tiny houses were never a solution. It was just an attempt to give comfort. I think it could have been better located.
“We got more homeless people in Wilmington than San Pedro. In Wilmington, we have more people that have struggled more. We’re not called the Heart of the Harbor for nothing. This is a working class town—a longshore community… We ain’t no candy-ass city. We’re about real life.”
Heart of the Harbor/Helping Those in Need
When it comes to the Gonzales’ close-knit group Helping Those in Need, he’d rather the attention not focus on himself but on the people who make it happen every week. In particular, he credits Fabela in helping realize his ambition to “pay it forward,” a phrase he got from a Haley Joel Osment film.
One day he posted a bit of food porn on Facebook, a shrimp burrito he bought for lunch. The post received a lot of comments and likes from Facebook friends until he posted the comment, “I’m going to start a soup kitchen and feed the whole east side from my front yard.” He was only joking at first, but the idea struck a chord and stayed with him.
For him, that idea turned into a question: Can I really feed some people?
Gonzales likes to barbecue, so he bought two boxes of hamburger patties from Smart & Final—a total of 80 patties for 40 people. Fabela was the first person he enlisted to help.
Being a self-professed social media addict, he put out a challenge to Wilmington on Facebook to show up for his barbecue.
“The east side seems like the stepchild of Wilmington,” Gonzales said. “The west side has the Boys and Girls Club, the teen center, the YMCA, YWCA…”
He said the response was overwhelming. Through Facebook, he found many people from similar walks of life as his own coming out to help and others who were already feeding the homeless on their own.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” Gonzales said. The whole [thing] just came together. We want to help people in the street in need. We don’t just help the homeless individuals.”
The group gives away food and water to families living in single-room occupancy hotels—families who are less than a step from being homeless.
“The people in those hotels…they are on hotel vouchers,” Gonzales said. “They are in an empty room with nothing to eat. So we are concerned about them. There are families in there with children.”
Heart of the Harbor works through existing aid agencies and men’s and women’s shelters in Wilmington and San Pedro.
“We use the resources that not too many people are aware of,” he said. “Our desire and main goal is to transition people off the street. We’re not doing this to make people comfortable on the street. We’re doing this to build relationships and give hope. We know everybody’s name and everybody knows us by name.”
Victory Outreach ministry is among the groups with which he’s built relationships.
Gonzales says the group has been successful in getting people off the street over the past two months.
“We just want to offer a little bit of love, comfort and hope, and at the same time encourage them to get off the street and let them know of the resources available,” he said. “Sure, we may not have enough and there may be a shortage of shelters, but there are resources you can go to for emergency relief.”
A Bleeding Heart
At 46 years old, Gonzales is a single dad of seven children. He’s critical of President Barack Obama’s administration, mostly because he believes the president is trying to take away our Second Amendment rights.
He admires some of the positions of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump—particularly Trump’s emphasis on making “America great again.” Though Trump’s positions on immigration and the candidate’s racial attacks on Hispanics has cooled Gonzales enthusiasm for him.
He’s a firm supporter of the military and draws inspiration from two uncles who are Vietnam War veterans. He says that if he had to do it differently, he would have joined the military. His arms are covered with tattoos, a reminder that he’s a former gang member. He is also a recovering drug addict, he says.
Gonzales recalled abuse from his stepfather from the age of 3. At 13, Gonzales fought back. He recounted calling his mom at work and telling her what happened. She told him to never come home again. As a result, he bounced around from couch to couch of the few friends he had at the time, and stayed with an aunt for a short period. But he was just another mouth to feed to the adults around him. Banning Park in Wilmington became the place where he slept.
Gonzales described himself as the “black sheep” of the family. He said he doesn’t know his biological father’s side of the family. He tried connecting with him briefly as a teenager, but discovered he was married and had another family.
“He took me in for a minute,” Gonzales said of his father. “But he had a wife. Me and her clashed…. With me being so full of anger that only lasted for a couple of days. “
He remembers trying to find food.
“I ate from garbage cans at the Taco Bell on Anaheim, because I was too proud or embarrassed to beg or ask for change,” Gonzales said. “I would wait until the night time and [I’d] go dumpster diving. That was before I started selling dope when I was 16. [With the drug money], I was able to afford a motel room every now and again.”
Gonzales explained he tried getting help from family, but by then, he was struggling with drug addiction. Then he got a job as a security guard at the age of 18. His first post as a security guard was at Pick-Your-Part in Wilmington.
“I was like a lot of people on the street—jack of all trades but master of none,” he said. “But there was always security. So that was always my fall back.”
Labor and Love
In September 1999, Gonzales was hired by Local 26 as an emergency watchman. It was there that the seeds that would become Heart of the Harbor/Helping Those in Need were planted.
“I knew what the union was from a very early age,” Gonzales said. “I didn’t know the details of how it worked, but I knew that it was something people from here wanted to be. Kind of like back East with the coal mines where people from my background would do. It was the job of the community. I knew it was a thing of pride.”
Gonzales said that when he started working at the Hanjin Terminal as a guard, he began opening up to people—a sharp contrast to his tendency to view strangers with suspicion.
One of the first people he opened up to at the terminal was Mark Reyes, one of the shop’s stewards.
“We’re guards, so there’s nothing but time to talk and get to know each other,” Gonzales explained. “For some reason Mark just helped me out. He was a steward who helped me with some of the union issues I had. We just developed a bond. He liked heavy metal, I liked heavy metal. We started going to concerts.”
When Gonzales, third youngest child Emory was born she had a heart defect. Reyes was there for Gonzales and his family.
“She had two holes in the upper chambers of her heart, causing her heart to beat extra fast. She needed major open heart surgery to correct the defect.
“He showed me genuine concern. The walk of life I came from, nobody does anything for free unless they have a hidden agenda.”
Gonzales describes Reyes as a bigger-than- life character calling for him through the hospital, and who literally held Gonzales and his daughter up before she went into surgery.
But Reyes wasn’t the only one, Gonzales recalls, looking back to the period after he separated from his wife and moved into a new place. He didn’t have any money to give his children a good Christmas.
A colleague at Hanjin Terminal, Christina Leblanc, through casual conversation with him learned of Gonzales’ situation.
Without his knowledge, Leblanc collected donations from all the guards at all the nearby terminals.
“It was a better Christmas than I ever could have ever provided for them,” Gonzales said. Gonzales counts Leblanc as one of those that encouraged him and pointed him towards recovery from his drug addiction. The experience inspired him to do for others what was done for him.