Lying in bed at night, Earl Williams wondered what his future would be. From his top bunk, No. 133A, in the men’s shelter on 38th Street in South Los Angeles, he stared up at the white rafters.
With the world out of sight, anything seemed possible — until his fears kicked in.
He prayed. He thought of his new friends. He repeated words of encouragement that had come his way, but they were sometimes hard to believe.
The men around him snored, they moaned, they whispered among themselves. Beds creaked, and the smells of weed, even meth, reached him like the tentacles from his former life. At 48, Williams felt like a football team that never won.
He curled onto his side. He adjusted his day pack, which was his pillow. It held his tablet, a change of clothes, papers. They were his most prized possessions, always nearby in case he got arrested, kicked out — or there was a fire.
The lights came on at 4:30 a.m., and the day began: a shower, breakfast, a morning smoke, his daily Facebook post, and then he took a bus to college. During the day, he liked to put distance between himself and the shelter, which reminded him of a prison yard, so many men milling about, just killing time.
Since coming back to Los Angeles in July, Williams had lived with the hope that the world wasn’t through with him, that the crimes of his past, his years of addiction, homelessness and incarceration, might be forgiven by helping others.
This morning he believed it just might be possible.
He had been accepted into a pilot program at Los Angeles Southwest College designed to provide him with skills to work in one of the city’s fastest growing job sectors: homeless services.
Flush with Measure H funding, a sales-tax assessment passed by county voters in 2017, agencies are on a hiring spree.
With need growing and new hires changing their minds about working on the street, managers are relaxing requirements for jobs whose wages start at about $17 an hour. Degrees and advanced training are not always needed, nor in some cases, a car or driver’s license.
The pilot program, Careers for a Cause, was proposed in 2018. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ staff had recognized that the homelessness crisis offered employment opportunities for the residents of South Los Angeles.
The staff enlisted the county’s workforce development agency, and with $100,000 from Ridley-Thomas’ discretionary fund, created an eight-week social service training program on the community college campus. Nearly 80 candidates applied for the 25 openings.
From late October through mid-December, Mondays through Thursdays, five hours a day, Williams and his fellow students gathered to hear about life on the street from outreach workers, mental health experts and case managers.
But to find their futures, they had to face down their pasts.