Like a lot of concerned Pasadenans, longtime resident Dr. Monique Margetis was alarmed by what seemed to be the growing number of homeless men and women she saw on the streets, under overpasses, crowding the parks.
As a pediatric pulmonary specialist, she also was familiar with children living in unhealthful conditions — in garages, for example — when their parents couldn’t afford more.
So Margetis faithfully donated to Union Station Homeless Services on a regular basis, believing in its mission to help adults and families facing hunger, homelessness and poverty in the community. But when she read that the nonprofit organization was looking for volunteers to help mentor recently housed homeless individuals, she felt something call out to her.
“For me, it was kind of putting my money and time where my mouth was,” said Margetis, who’d just retired from full-time work at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and felt she might have time to volunteer. “I’ve long been worried about people who are homeless; I talk about the situation all the time. Living in this city, you can’t walk around here and not see all these faces — it’s just heartbreaking. And, well, here was something I could actually do, something where I could really make a difference.”
Margetis joined a small contingent of Pasadena neighbors who are partnering with the Union Station Homeless Services Community Allies program, a new way for volunteers to engage with the homeless and provide support and kinship through one-on-one relationships. The mission is to help empower those who’ve been homeless to combat feelings of isolation while they achieve self-sufficiency, housing stability and overall wellness.
In short, Margetis offered her time to get to know someone, and that someone turned out to be Verlinda Bee, whom Margetis describes as sweet-tempered and generous. The two hit it off right away and are now celebrating more than a year of friendship.
Union Station CEO Anne Miskey said that the Community Allies program is working to keep formerly homeless individuals permanently housed, and fits into the bigger picture of fighting homelessness on multiple levels. As complex as the reasons are for becoming homeless — whether it’s the loss of a job, lack of affordable housing, mental illness, substance abuse, domestic abuse, cyclical poverty or a combination of all of the above — the methods of helping must be equally matched, she noted.
And Union Station, combined with the city and other area nonprofits, has shown that the groups’ efforts and methods are working: Pasadena homelessness was down 20%, to about 300 individuals, in 2019 from the previous year, and down about 56% from 10 years ago. That compares to the Greater Los Angles Homeless Count results in 2019, which found that more than 58,900 people were living without permanent shelter on any given night throughout L.A. County, up 12% compared with the previous year, according to the L.A. Homeless Services Authority.
Miskey said that although Union Station has made headway by treating individuals on a one-by-one basis, its leaders have found that they need to better engage the community in their mission.
“We have found that we need to better engage with the people in our community, help them understand what are the myths and realities regarding homelessness and how we can recruit community members to help resolve this and the systemic processes that are failing our communities,” she said. “If we are going to resolve homelessness — and we believe we can — we need to bring the community along with us to achieve it.”
The Community Allies program represents a method that is tried and true, she noted. It helps those who’ve experienced homelessness develop healthy relationships, a healthy social network and sense of belonging in the community. But it also helps those who volunteer to expand their experiences, meet new people and grow as human beings.
“Homelessness is a very isolating condition; people coming out of it have been disconnected from society for a long time, and the experience and trauma that comes with it is very difficult to overcome. The goal of our ‘friends and allies’ program is to break down that isolation and make a connection with another human being,” Miskey said. “This really further extends what we can do and how we can walk with our clients on this journey to fulfill hopes and dreams and connect with those in the community.”
Margetis and Bee have become one of 60 successfully paired couples in the program. The two have grown their friendship, with Margetis helping to remind Bee of her appointments, offering her rides and companionship to get there when she can. The two like to take walks in the mall and window shop or, when the weather is nice, stroll in the parks. They enjoy lunching together at a favorite, old-fashioned diner, where they’re called “Sweetie” and “Baby.”
Meeting up to discuss their journey together, Margetis recalled how apprehensive she was initially, saying, “I was very nervous she might not like me … this was very outside of my comfort zone.”
Bee laughed in agreement, adding, “I was afraid I wouldn’t get along with her.”
Before getting into permanent supportive housing through Union Station, Bee was homeless and lived out of her car for more than a year, sleeping in parking lots or anywhere authorities wouldn’t ticket her. It’s hard for Bee to retrace the steps that led to that point, exactly, but she recounted that several years earlier, her mother — whom she’d cared for and lived with — had passed away, and her remaining family sold the house, leaving her nowhere to go. Reeling with grief and struggling for sobriety, Bee did the best she could, living out of her car and bathing at a shelter. But she’d gotten used to people not looking at her, or merely looking to judge her. Estranged from her family, she felt alone for a long time.
So when, finally, Bee completed the steps to achieving sobriety and finally received the keys to an apartment through Union Station, she was nervous. Her one-bedroom apartment often still feels too quiet. Its location in Pomona is new to her, too. Getting to know Margetis has been a bright spot in her world, she said.
“When I first saw Monique, I didn’t think we would match, but we did. I really enjoy her — she’s been good to me. She helps me make sure I get my appointments done; she looks out for me, and I appreciate that,” said Bee, adding that Margetis helped her to study to regain her driver’s license after it was suspended because of unpaid parking tickets, many incurred while she tried to live out of her car. (“That’s one of the ways they criminalize homelessness,” added Emily Fredrickson, Union Station program manager.)
Fredrickson acknowledged, laughingly, she’s become the Community Allies matchmaker, and has now overseen the dozens of other successfully paired couples in the program. The nonprofit organizes monthly get-togethers at the Union Station Family Center, including bingo, barbecues, movie or game nights and field trips to Sparks games.
“Having supportive relationships is so important in everyone’s lives … as adults it can be really difficult to meet people in your community, especially in a giant, sprawling place like L.A.,” Fredrickson said. “For people who have been through difficult situations and are trying to change and move forward, especially for those who never really had healthy relationships before, this is doubly difficult. So we are helping them make a human connection and create companionship and friendship.”
As for Margetis and Bee, she said, “All we did was kind of put them together, and it’s been really beautiful to watch that relationship bloom and grow.”
Margetis, who glanced at her friend and said she gets more out of the friendship than Bee (who laughed at that), teared up a bit when describing what she’s learned from the relationship. The two women patted each other’s hands affectionately.
“What I’ve learned from Verlinda … even after everything she has been through, she has retained such a gentle, kind spirit. Verlinda doesn’t have a bitter, mean bone in her body, and it’s so apparent, she just shines,” Margetis said. “Working with her has put such a face on homelessness for me … her persistence and her positive attitude in the face of major setbacks in life and hardships and medical problems. … I mean, she is such a wonderful example of ‘You can do it.’ It’s been a real privilege to be with her and try to be a positive spot in her life.”
Miskey added that anyone interested in helping to make a difference in Pasadena should check out the Community Allies program.
“This is a great opportunity to have a profound effect on the life of a neighbor who was formerly homeless and is now a member of our community. As an agency we walk alongside the volunteer and their companion, making sure it’s a positive experience for everyone involved. At the end of the day, you come away knowing you’ve made a tremendous difference, and as a volunteer, you will gain more than you ever could have imagined from this new friendship.”
To learn more about volunteer opportunities at Union Station Homeless Services or its Community Allies program, visit unionstationhs.org and click on the “Volunteer” link.