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Opening Hearts and Minds

By Ann K. Williams
Staff Writer

September 27 -- By the time he turned 50, Larry Pittman had done it all -- sleeping in alleyways, panhandling for spare change to buy vodka, standing in food lines.

“If alcohol’s going to kill me, it might as well do it in a good place,” Pittman decided, so he came to Santa Monica.

More than 400 people turned out Friday morning at Bergamot Station to hear Pittman’s story and those of others who, like him, have gotten off the streets and built new lives with help from local social service agencies.

Pittman had spent 13 years on the street, run through two marriages and two sets of kids, and wasn’t looking for a miracle when he went to a local church he’d heard was handing out free hamburgers.

But bit by bit his miracle happened, sometimes in spite of himself, as volunteers in Westside service agencies and charities reached out to him, talked with him and inspired him to turn his life around.

(Photos by Charles Haskell unless otherwise indicated)

Today he has a paying job as a mental health advocate, his own apartment in town and, best of all, he says, he’s been reunited with his twin daughters and “two gorgeous grandchildren.”

“A lot of people say, ‘The odds are against you, your circumstances are this and your circumstances are that,’” Pittman told his audience. “But circumstances are temporary and they are subject to change.”

City and County officials joined the nattily dressed crowd to share a meal and honor homeless men and women who’ve triumphed over adversity as the 30 organizations that make up the Westside Shelter and Hunger Coalition hosted its tenth annual awards breakfast.

“We did it to create a way of honoring the journeys and struggles of our clients and bring the community together to develop a deeper understanding of how hard it is to get off the streets, how difficult their journeys are,” said Rhonda Meister, coalition chair and Executive Director of Saint Joseph’s Center, a social service agency in Venice.

"We must influence those in power to rebuild our country," actress and humanitarian Wendie Malick said, alluding to the billions of dollars diverted to the rebuilding of Iraq.

"This country is rich enough and powerful enough to end homelessness if we want to," Meister added later.

Malick handed out awards for Determination -- Pittman’s category -- Education, Giving Back and Overcoming Multiple Barriers to 25 previously homeless people and Community Support Awards to agencies that have “gone beyond the call of duty,” including Sotheby’s International Realty, the Brentwood School and the Viet Nam Veterans Motorcycle Club.

John Maceri, executive director of the Ocean Park Community Center accepted a $5,000 grant from the Bayside District Corporation. The money, gathered from the dolphin change banks on the pier and the Third Street Promenade, will support OPCC’s Daybreak shelter which serves mentally ill homeless women.

City Council member Bob Holbrook received the Community Partner Award (Photo by Ann K. Williams)

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky presented the Community Partner Award to Santa Monica City Council member Bob Holbrook. The City won the award for its organization of police, fire department and social service agencies into a “continuum of care” to reach homeless people and improve their lives.

Yaroslavsky told a story about his daughter to illustrate one of Friday morning’s recurrent themes -- the unwillingness of many to look at and interact with homeless people.

While walking down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, Yaroslavsky’s daughter got into a conversation with a homeless man. After they’d talked for 20 minutes, she offered him some money.

He refused, saying, “I don’t want your money. You’ve given me something much more important, your respect.”

She later told her father that in the 20 minutes she and the homeless man sat on the curb talking, “dozens of people walked by and none of them made eye contact.”

“Santa Monica has made eye contact, big time,” Yaroslavsky said as he handed Holbrook the award certificate. “There is no city in this county that has done more than the City of Santa Monica.”

Yaroslavsky shared the stage with Holbrook, Council member Richard Bloom, City Manager Susan McCarthy, Acting Human Services Division Manager Mona Miyasato, Deputy Police Chief Philip Sanchez, Deputy Fire Chief Bruce Davis and Hilda Garcia from State Senator Sheila Kuehl’s office.

But “the real VIPS are the honorees,” Meister said. “Real people with real courage.”

People like Maria Lukvec, a mother of three whose business went under in the late nineties.

She moved her family into the back room of her store, then, when the lease ran out, into their car, finally winding up on the street.

Lukvec tried to make her children’s lives “as smooth as I could,” to “make it like fun, like this is a new experience.” But she was overwhelmed by despair.

“You’re just punishing yourself, you feel powerless,” she said of those dark days. “You want to do things you can’t. Three lives are depending on you.”

She was finally able to get back on her feet after she entered Upward Bound House, a shelter for homeless families with minor children and very low-income seniors.

Once there, she was given life skills, money management and parenting classes, and enrolled at Santa Monica College, where she completed her Associate in Arts degree.

Today she’s earning a 3.8 grade point average in psychology and education at Cal State Dominguez Hills while working full time, volunteering and, oh yes, being mom to her three children.

“I’ve broken the chain that my mom and grandma could not read or write,” Luckvec told her audience with pride.

“Living your life can affect others,” she said. “My 65-year-old father is getting his GED.”

When Earnest Armor took the stage, the slim, well-dressed man stood erect at the microphone.

Armor battled undiagnosed depression and post-traumatic stress disorder for decades and lived on the street for 20 years.

“I spent a lot of time trying to destroy myself,” Armor said.

He slouched suddenly and held his hands out, miming begging. That’s how he used to be, he told the audience.

But now, “I can straighten up. I don’t have to bend. I can look people in the eye.”

Today Armor lives at Step Up on Second’s Community of Friends building where he offers his services as a peer leader.

The morning was filled with inspirational stories like Pittman’s, Lukvac’s and Armor’s.

And when Sharon Frochen, an alumna of New Directions Women’s Program, closed the program with the lyrics “I once was lost but now am found, was blind, but now I see,” her words resonated with the members of the audience who’d had their eyes and hearts opened by the words of the men and women they’d come to honor.

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