Kaliso Mwanza
Reporting from Downtown Los Angeles, CA.

Until recently, 51-year-old Victor Mackey was homeless and living on the streets of Los Angeles. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Victor moved to Los Angeles as a child with his family about forty years ago. He completed high school locally and went on to attend El Camino Junior College before joining the United States Postal Service. For the next 18 years, he held several positions before being abruptly terminated, due to absences that arose as a consequence of his drug addiction.

To compound Victor’s new state of joblessness, his marriage was deteriorating because of his co-addictions to drugs and infidelity with other women. Things came to a head in 2003 when, together with is wife and two children, he was evicted and became homeless.

In the wake of his family’s eviction and his detrimental attitude, Victor’s relationship with his wife was strained, and his wife and children moved away. Alone, he spent several subsequent years gang banging and roaming from city to city all over the west and east sides of the County of Los Angeles, before ending up on Skid Row in 2006. During this period, he had several stints of sobriety and held down jobs but always succumbed to his addiction and took to the streets.

Victor relied on General Relief (GR), which helped as a temporary and very limited monthly source of funds to meet his financial needs—until it ran out. Then he would be back to waiting on his next months’ $200 GR disbursement. Victor, like so many others, milked the welfare system for all it could offer. He shelter hopped for immediate housing, clothing and to get fed; obtained handouts from the public, social services from churches, and other charitable entities and individuals; and was able to access services such as telephone, fax and bus tokens. Variously, he had been where most other homeless persons had been or are right now: living on the streets, sleeping in cardboard boxes or tents, exposed to the elements of climate, with no recourse to medical attention and insurance, and eating out of trash cans and doing drugs.

Somewhere along the line, Victor got tired of the dependency cycle in which he felt he was ensnared, and he resolved to change. He needed a spot—a launching pad of sorts—from where he could begin to get back on his feet, albeit gradually. That is exactly what he did. Now Victor’s circumstances and life have improved dramatically. He resides downtown at the brand new Abby Apartments and is a proud single apartment occupant. How did he get to become what he describes as a “grateful” new tenant in a brand new tenement? He cannot remember a “watershed moment”, but he was able to trace his luck back to what, for him, was a definite turning of the tides arising from a personal shift in attitude towards himself. From New Image, one of the other shelters that offers programs for the homeless, through which he had recently passed, Victor acquired references that enabled him to secure his current dwelling, and things have started to look up for him. It was not at all easy to achieve though. He sensed that he was under the constant scrutiny of society when he was on the street, and the shame and embarrassment he felt precluded him from seeking genuine assistance. Victor says, “I’ve been where I’ve had no job; been hungry, had nowhere to live, lie down use the bathroom or to take a shower. My very dignity and self-esteem reached an all-time low, but I never let that condition define me. I looked at myself. I did not like what I saw, and I changed that—this time for good. After determining that I was going to change, I got busy with what I personally could do about it. It’s not how people look at you. It is how you are looking at yourself that really makes the difference of whether you make it out of the rut that you are in. It took me some time to crawl, and you have to crawl before you walk. I walked the embarrassment off. I walked the shame off. I became conscious of the dirt on me, the ‘stank’ of me, and decided I didn’t need to be hungry, and yes, it was about me, and with Jehovah’s help, I took the first few steps.”

Victor is of the view that he can help the homeless by showing them his success as a template. That’s what I did. Society can talk about you all they want, but you know what? If you don’t have something good to say, then please don’t say anything at all. It’s about me building myself up, from the ground up, and learning how to stay up. Like now, I’ve got to pay some bills. I want to show my peers that, as I did, they too can overcome hapless circumstances. I had walked in their shoes. I felt what some of them are feeling. I, therefore, can empathize with their circumstances, and I find it easy to approach and talk to my peers.

A couple of weeks ago, the Founder of United Steps noticed Victor downtown, in passing, and he stopped to talk him. He was impressed by Victor’s resolve to change his circumstances and those of his peers around. He introduced the mission of United Steps to an enthusiastic Victor and asked him if he was willing to work. Victor expressed an interest in working and has since been introduced to various opportunities to work. Victor says, “Every day, I wake up, wash my face, brush my teeth, comb my hair, put on some nice clean clothes, and my attitude has changed. Today I am different because I am me. I have better conduct. I’m up, out from a homeless state of mind. I am grateful.” Victor says that “there are good people out there who may want to help” but emphasizes that the homeless individual must want to start seeking that help and must resolve to seek a change in himself, or he will stay down. One must want to get up. It’s a choice—one that I made and I hope my peers will make too.