By Jacqueline DeAmor
Recently, my Mom said to me, “Every experience, every job, is a lesson that you place in your back pocket. Those lessons will guide you in your career and help you for the rest of your life.” No truer words could have been spoken. I’ve been working in housing for 10 years now. When I was 18 and still in college, I started a part time job working as a copier for a Low Income Housing Tax Credit property in New Jersey and never left when winter break concluded. Over the years I was promoted from an assistant to a Compliance Specialist at a larger corporation. In 2013, I moved to California to pursue an acting career, thinking I had left my work in housing behind me.
However, in September of 2014 I started to work again in providing housing. The difference? This company specifically caters to providing housing for the homeless. I was terrified my first day. My office is located on Skid Row, a place I didn’t know existed. Where I came from, the homeless were not as visible as they are here in Los Angeles. I only heard it as a saying growing up: “If you do this, you will end up on Skid Row!” Imagine my surprise, driving to my office and finding myself amongst the largest population of homeless people in the United States. To be honest, I thought they were dangerous. I drove 2 miles away in fear, hyperventilating, and almost quitting my job right then and there. I started texting my roommate, freaking out about this new job. She said, “It sounds like Skid Row.” My response? “THAT’S A PLACE????” I was incredibly naïve and maybe even ignorant to these circumstances. After thinking for some time, I returned and decided to give this job a shot. I didn’t realize how impactful and important my work would become to me.
Our first major assignment was to lease up a newly renovated hotel with 264 apartments, most of which would house homeless veterans and the chronically homeless Skid Row population. We first started with interviews to make sure people qualified for the programs and subsidies in place. It didn’t take more than a week before I realized that all of my assumptions, beliefs, and pre-conceived notions about the homeless were 100% wrong. I always assumed they became homeless because of drugs, alcohol, criminal history, and mental illness. Yet the majority of those interviewed became homeless due to bad circumstances. For example, they had a bad divorce, family members died, bankruptcy, loss of a job, etc. This could happen to anyone. Those I interviewed started to call me regularly to check in on the status of their application and I found myself attached to them. I bugged my bosses, “When can we start moving them in? How long will this take?” I was anxious to get them in.
One woman called me often, updating me on her current living situation. She was staying at a shelter and they gave her a very rapidly approaching deadline to leave. She would cry on the phone and tell me that she’s going to have to live on the streets again, yet my hands were tied. Some days I wanted to cry from the stories I heard. The homeless were no longer invisible. I started to see them everywhere. I was no longer afraid to walk down Skid Row.
Midway through the process, we called applicants to let them know they were assigned a unit. The reactions were varied and incredibly emotional. I had some start screaming, others cry, some politely say ‘thank you’, and one man who started talking calmly…then midsentence started screaming and laughing. Their joy and appreciation made all the work we were investing into this mass lease up so worth it.
once they leave the military. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. I started falling apart and was too prideful to ask for help. One day I looked around and wondered the same thing. How did I get here?” He then asked me a question. “Are you homeless?” I answered, “No I’m not.” He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Then you have an obligation to help those less fortunate. You have what so many of us can only dream of. A home.” He was right. I have a roof over my head, a job, savings, and while I’ve had my fair share of struggles…I’ve never been homeless. He made me realize that we all have an obligation to help those less fortunate. Wouldn’t we want the same if this happened to us? Many of these amazing people have stories so similar to his.
After several long months, we finally leased up the entire hotel. Recently, the woman who had been calling constantly about her application called me from her new apartment. She said she had been homeless since 1998 and hadn’t seen her children since they were kids. Yet just a day prior, her son slept over and her daughter started calling her again. She was crying and said that her new place was her castle and that she would be forever grateful. Where she was once invisible to society, she now had a place to call home and could start putting her life back together again. This was a stepping stone to something greater. All she needed was a chance.
How can you help? Donate. Participate in the Homewalk that happens in November every year. Don’t ignore them when you see them. Say “Hello”, “Good Morning” or offer a kind word. Volunteer. If this happened to you, wouldn’t you want someone to notice and give you a chance?
Jacqueline DeAmor is an actress/writer/filmmaker currently working with the homeless. She now lives in Los Angeles, volunteering her time with HomeWalk, SAG-AFTRA MOVE, and FoundAnimals. She has been devoting her time to volunteerism since 2008.
*Please note that not all experiences, beliefs and ideas are shared by each member of the “The New Hollywood.” We are a group of shepherds, not sheep.