Credit to LA Times, Kelley Corrigan, Digital Editor
Kerlissa Lefeged and Gilbert Camacho moved from Colorado to Los Angeles in early May, taking with them little more than clothes and a hope for a new life. But the job that Camacho was promised fell through, and the couple and their three children bounced from motel to motel until the money ran out.
Ultimately, Andres, Olyvia and Amellio, ages 7, 6 and 4, would spend their nights at their grandmother’s home in Highland Park. Lefeged and Camacho would sleep in his mother’s car.
Lefeged estimates she called at least 50 homeless shelters in Los Angeles. All of them were full or said Camacho could not stay with his wife and children at night. She was beginning to lose hope. “Finally, it was just awful,” Lefeged said.
After seeing a listing for Family Promise of the Verdugos, she made a call that led to the family’s placement in the program. At the Burbank service center, families like the Camachos look for jobs and permanent housing. They also receive financial and job counseling.
At night, families sleep in one of the roughly 20 Glendale or Burbank churches and eat dinner provided by volunteers. Family Promise partners with the houses of worship to provide for its clients.
As the Camacho family works to get back on their feet, they enrolled their two school-age children at Washington Elementary, a school they have come to adore within a matter of weeks, and one they want their children to remain enrolled in. Lefeged said her children feel comfortable there, where they wear school uniforms donated by Family Promise. The teachers and staff have been supportive, and the children’s classmates are unaware their parents are searching for a permanent home. For now, however, the service center on a quiet residential street is almost home. This is where they wash their clothes, store their belongings in a locker, and plan for the future. One recent morning, the youngest member of the family, Amellio, rested his head on a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pillow and watched cartoons. The courtyard at the center, with a round stone mosaic table, is where Lefeged goes to collect her thoughts.
About three weeks ago, while walking home from school, Olyvia asked her mom when they would have their own house, and Lefeged told her daughter she was trying. Later that day, Lefeged confided in Albert Hernandez, the executive director of Family Promise, that she was frustrated. “I told Albert, ‘You know, I don’t see that light anymore at the end of the tunnel. He was like, ‘Go down in the tunnel and make a left. If you make a left, you can see it. It’s not a straight shot, but it’s there.’”
Hernandez stepped in as executive director of Family Promise in July, after the organization went on a hiatus for several months to raise money. A single successful fundraiser netted $30,000, and the nonprofit resumed serving families. “We’re getting families in and out and they’re not coming back,” Hernandez said. “We’re successful because of the constant communication with them and the one-on-one attention we give them.” When Lefeged’s days become tough, Hernandez said he tries to make them easier, sometimes inviting her to cry or scream.
Hernandez also keeps track of birthdays, and for each one the family has celebrated recently, there have been a birthday cake and candles. “There should be more Alberts out there,” Lefeged said. “It makes you know — somebody is out there and cares, and you can actually make it. That’s Family Promise. To me, it promises just what the name says. It promises a family of hope, of belief and faith. This is something that we wanted so bad. We wanted a place to shine, to show that we can pick up everything that was on the ground and bring it back up. And we were blessed with this place.”
Lefeged never imagined her family would be homeless. At food banks, she would meet others who felt the same — people who could no longer afford their four-bedroom home because they lost their job. “It happens to people with degrees, or people who have been working their jobs for 25 years,” she said. Prior to her own circumstances, Lefeged believed that homeless people must have made the wrong choices somewhere along their way. “Now that I’m going through it, it’s changed me a lot. It gives me a different perspective on it, and a respect because it happens to just anybody.”
Earlier this month, the family slept on air mattresses at Glendale Presbyterian Church with only the minimum necessities: blankets, sheets, clothing and school supplies. At the church last week, volunteers fed them taquitos, fried chicken, rice, beans and kabobs, part of the many volunteer-made meals the family has survived on for the last several weeks, including hamburgers, pasta and lasagna.
In the morning, a shuttle delivers the family back to the service center. The children go to school and Lefeged and Camacho focus on their life ahead.
Each night, they talk about their plan for the next day as well as their long-term plan.
Last week, Camacho began his new job assisting drivers with FedEx deliveries, a position he secured through Family Promise. The couple continue to look for a permanent apartment.
“I just want them to have a home. It will be for them,” Lefeged said. “It will be for us, too, but mostly for them to feel secure, and happy and normal.”
Kelly Corrigan, firstname.lastname@example.org