This year, I’ll celebrate the Fourth of July on the balcony of my building, barbecuing with my neighbors. Later, I’ll head to my son’s house in Long Beach to watch fireworks with my wife and grandbabies.
This may seem unremarkable to you, but not to me: for 39 years, I cycled between the streets and prison.
I was first unhoused at 14 years old. My father lost his job at Fletcher Chevrolet in Reseda while I was in middle school, and he and my mom struggled to support my brothers, sister and me. Food and new clothes became scarce. I saw how the kids in the gang near our home on 106th and Cimarron St had money, and was drawn in. I got into gang life to help support my family, but it pushed away everyone I loved.
No surprise, I got into trouble. I lost years living between prison and the streets with no home, no future, and no dreams. My focus was on survival, every second of every day.
I had my first daughter at 18 years old and three more children in the following years. My mother raised all my children with love and kept them out of trouble, and I sent money home to provide for them. Their fathers all died young.
I was released from prison for the last time at age 53,on the same day my mother died: March 11, 2010. My kids were grown, my mom was gone, and I was broken. My recovery had to start on the inside, but I didn’t know where to start.
An old acquaintance told me about a place that might have a bed for me, so I took the bus to Hollywood and found People Assisting The Homeless (PATH). I saw a counselor and began to unpack my past, spending the next few years in shelter.
Then in 2013, I made my best move yet. I put a key in a lock and opened the door of my very own home. Having a home — my home — changed everything. I live in supportive housing, which pairs housing with services that set people like me up for success. I needed help with the basics of life: how to get to doctor appointments, open a bank account, and cook and eat right.
Now, as a board member of PATH, I get to help othersunderstand that supportive housing saves lives and is the most effective long-term solution to end homelessness. There are more than 11,000 of us currently living in supportive housing at any given time in LA County. Its track record shows 90% of us will stay housed.
Too many people want quick fixes that won’t actually solve homelessness. I’m grateful for the transitional housing I stayed in at PATH, but people living in shelters are still homeless. Some see the cost of housing rise and say we should spend money on shelters instead, and arrest people for being unhoused. The cost of building all kinds of housing is going up, but supportive housing is more cost-effective than what is spent locking people up.
I advocated to help pass Prop HHH in 2016 — a ten-year program to build the housing we need. It was slow to get started, but it’s picking up speed. Between this Fourth of July and next, we’ll more than double what we’ve seen so far, with 2,100 new homes about to open, and speeding up from there. We will have more than 10,000 new homes, many with the kinds of services that saved my life, by 2026.
Before you decide that we should walk away from that progress and return to shelters and jails, think about what Independence Day means to me.
On the first Independence Day in my home, I signed up to barbecue at my building’s cookout. After a few burnt hamburgers, I turned out to be a real Chef Boyardee. I felt important because I could make my neighbors’ wishes come true.
That night I stood on the balcony with them, watching the fireworks light up the Valley sky, and thought about freedom.
Supportive housing was the key to my independence. It gave me the stability to face my past and build a better future. It helped me reconnect with my children and build relationships with my grandkids.
Everybody deserves to feel like I do today. I am alive. I am joyful. I am free. And I never miss the fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Zondre Johnson is a board member of People Assisting the Homeless (PATH) and a CSH Speak Up Advocate.