Finding Illumination in the Darkest of Times: Stories of Homelessness in Orange County

By Ariana Maiwandi and Stephanie Albuquerque

Portrait of Christopher Black*.

“Everyone in Orange County is two paychecks away from poverty.”

Christopher Black*, a 45-year old gentleman, has been living  in the non-profit housing service, Illumination Foundation for the past several days after living on the streets of Huntington Beach for almost a year.

Like most teenagers in the 90s, Black moved out of his childhood home at 17 years old and into an apartment with a friend. He describes his high school life as “normal,” partying with his friends and squeezing in his homework. Yet, unlike most high school students, he was working three jobs. After completing his education, he landed a job at a mortgage company where his paycheck was well over six figures. It was during this time that he was married and had a son. After seven years, they made the decision to separate, and his son continued to live with him.

However, this all changed when he received a call from his sister telling him that their mother was severely ill and needed care. Black took it upon himself to quit his job, move across Orange County, and care for his mother until her final days. Struck by grief, he turned to alcohol for solace and blew through his savings. Eventually, this led him to lose his home and turn to friends for support. Black was able to live with a friend for some time, helping him with the chores, until his friend evicted him. A long way from his old life, he frequently moved around, couch-surfing between his friends, making the discovery that “everyone in Orange County is two paychecks away from poverty.”

Finding himself without a place to stay, Black took shelter in the streets, particularly in Huntington Beach because of the access to water and public restrooms. He would frequently sleep on bus benches, behind bushes, and under bridges. One night, he awoke to a kick in the face, breaking his glasses in the process. He realized that it wasn’t just one, but three men who attacked him. Random acts of violence against the homeless are prominent, and this is just one example. According to Max Foley-Keene, a writer for the student newspaper at University of Maryland, College Park, The DiamondBack, “these acts are largely fueled by a cultural instinct, mostly among young men, to attack the homeless for a thrill…‘something stupid [they] do for fun.’” The National Coalition for the Homeless shows statistics of almost 2,000 homeless individuals as victims of extreme violence over the past seventeen years as laws criminalizing homelessness increase.

Despite this, Black remarks that he met several other homeless individuals with whom he became friends and helped him in one way or another. For example, the glasses that he wears now are not his own, but rather a pair given to him by a woman he met on the streets.

Homelessness was not the only issue Black was facing. He also had health issues that required hospital treatment, such as cellulitis and neuropathy in his leg. It was when he visited the hospital that he met social workers from the Homelessness Task Force, and they told him to stop by at their Huntington Beach branch if he ever wanted a bus pass or a meal.

Taking them up on their offer, he went to the office and asked for a bus pass. In response, the office assistant asked him if he would place to sleep instead.

Three hours later, she was able to secure him a bed. Now, Black resides at the Illumination Foundation shelter. Proud of his strong history of work, he is currently working on his resume and searching for jobs, as well as fighting his battle with alcoholism. When asked about his motivation in life, he states, “My son…and myself. This is not the life I wanted for myself.”  Black emphasized that is is important to “keep working, find help, go to a friend or family member” and “look for help.” He really believes in the importance of moving forward based on merit and hard work, a quality that not many these days associate with the homeless, but a quality that they nonetheless have to exhibit everyday in their struggle to survive.

____________________________________________________________________

Portrait of Brian Andrews*.

“Homelessness can occur to anyone.”

Meet Brian Andrews*, an ex-NFL player, a musician, and an entrepreneur. In 1976, he was the first draft choice for the Los Angeles Rams after receiving a full scholarship to the University of California, Los Angeles and Colorado State University. Following his five-year career, he transitioned into football coaching and then later retired in his Lake Arrowhead home.

Before the NFL, Andrews spent his time in Nashville, following his passion for music. Inspired by his creative mother, he had a start-up music production company and used to play the guitar, write, and sing his own songs.

Andrews shared a strong bond with his mother and recounts memories of them having tea on her balcony and having riveting conversations of politics, art, music, and life. He praises her as an intelligent and beyond creative woman, which is why he was deeply saddened when she died of illness. A month after her passing, tragedy struck again with the unexpected death of his childhood best friend. Andrews had lost two of the closest people in his life in a matter of a couple months.

Currently, he resides in Illumination Foundation because he is facing homelessness. Although he owns a home, he is considered homeless due to his medical conditions that left him unable to live alone. For this reason, he implores: “don’t burn bridges with your family…those are the people that are gonna be there and help the most.” His distinct story is the reason he claims that “homelessness can occur to anyone.” He sustained several hip and leg injuries from his time in football. He has received one hip replacement and is currently awaiting his second one. In November 2016, Andrews suffered a stroke, resulting in blindness in one eye. His hand and vocal cords were also affected by the stroke. Due to this, he is no longer able to play guitar or sing his songs.

His health and living conditions, however, did not stop him from tapping into other parts of his creativity. He invented a phone application that allows security and police to track and register cars on highways, gated housing communities, and in university parking lots. It is now used by several Utah police departments and the California Highway Patrol.

Although many of his life’s circumstances were out of his control, he acknowledges the importance of a social network and social support for everyone. Illumination Foundation is now helping Andrews reconnect with his remaining family members.  His advice to everyone is: “you have to create a door or open a door and see if anyone wants to walk through it.”

____________________________________________________________________

Portrait of Matthew Roberts.

“There’s a lot of talent in the world; you just have to find a way to get it out of people.”

To the world, he may be seen as a recovering drug addict, an ex-gang member, and an ex-convict; yet, Matthew Roberts* is so much more than that. He is a father, an aspiring drug and gang counselor, and a survivor.

Roberts had a nontraditional childhood; born to teenage parents, his father was killed at 16 by an opposing gang, and he was raised by his grandparents due to his mother’s young age.

His grandparents knew that it would be easy for Matthews to follow in his father’s footsteps and decided to move their family to another part of Orange County. Roberts realized that once a person goes looking for drugs or gangs, it doesn’t matter how far they have to go.

At 13, he began smoking marijuana and dealing to others in his neighborhood. Despite his involvement in illegal activities, he tried to maintain his values by limiting his involvement in gangs and avoiding serious drugs, like heroin.

His first arrest was at 18. After two years, he was able to take advantage of the Ex-Offenders Program and enroll in school at California State University, Los Angeles. At this point, Roberts reflected on his childhood, concluding that he never developed a strong work ethic because he was spoiled as a child. As a result, he struggled to excel in school and turned to a mentor in the Ex-Offenders Program for help. And, just as his mentor had done many times in the past, he offered Roberts heroin. The only difference was that this time, Roberts accepted the offer. This sparked his 40 year battle with drug addiction.

After his sophomore year in college, he took a leave of absence and never went back. From that moment on, drugs impacted every decision that he made in his life, including his decision to marry a woman because of their shared heroin habits. Together, they had four daughters who ultimately became the reasons why he quit drugs. His daughters saw the detrimental effect drugs had on their parents and to this day, have not touched a single drug. Looking back, he contemplates the effects that the drugs had on his family: “I don’t wish that on my worst enemy.”

One of the most eye-opening experiences for him was when his daughter won an essay competition for Red Ribbon Week. During her reading at the awards ceremony, she talked about how she would always “say no to drugs” because she saw people that she loved hurt by them. For Roberts, this was a moment of truth. He loved his daughters and tried to protect them, but neither he nor his wife were ready to quit.

After almost 30 years of marriage, Roberts’s wife returned to church, and from here, she found the strength to quit her lifelong addiction with drugs. She urged him to quit, but to no avail. Fed up, she decided to end their marriage in a divorce.

With nowhere else to go, he looked to his daughters for help and bounced between their houses for a few nights at a time, continuing his drug use until they realized they were enabling him. His ex-wife and daughters told him that he would not be able to come back home until he changed his ways.

This is how Roberts ended up homeless and eventually found the Illumination Foundation where he is motivated by himself and his family to do better. “Feels good when you’re doing something positive,” he says.

Roberts’s experiences have inspired him to pursue a career in counseling because he believes that getting young children out of the streets and into a classroom can prevent situations like his from imposing on future lives. He genuinely believes that “there’s a lot of talent in the world; you just have find a way to get it out of people” and he has made it his mission to do so.

___________________________________________________________________

Illumination Foundation is a non-profit organization that aims to break the cycle of homelessness by offering housing, case management, medical care, mental health, and workforce services to decrease community dependency.

If you are interested in volunteering with Illumination Foundation, you can contact them through their website: www.ifhomeless.org. If you or someone you know may be facing homelessness, please call 211 to find further resources.

*Name changed to protect privacy of the individual.


Ariana Maiwandi is a biological sciences major at the University of California, Irvine. She will be graduating this year and hopes to build a career in health care after completing her education. When she is not studying, Ariana enjoys watching Netflix, sketching, or spending time with her family and friends. Currently, her goal is to make an impact in the lives of the underserved through her involvement with community service based student organizations. Ariana can be reached at amaiwand@uci.edu.

Stephanie Albuquerque is a UCI student, studying Public Health Policy and Education Sciences, and contemplating a minor in Psychology and Social Behavior. She is passionate about helping the underserved and is working towards a career reducing health inequality and disparities through advocacy and education. She loves learning about different cultures and untold history. In her spare time, she enjoys playing board games with her family, petting cute puppies, and trying new mac and cheese recipes. Stephanie can be reached at albuques@uci.edu.

Leave a Reply

*