'My Own Father Was Homeless, Too'
Brett Ratner, the director, board member of Chrysalis, an L.A. nonprofit that helps the homeless find work, photographs a few of its clients -- and writes about his firsthand experience with why it matters
Miami Beach -- that's where I grew up, in a middle-class Jewish family led by my maternal grandfather. Me, my great-grandmother -- a Holocaust survivor, who was my roommate -- my grandparents, my mom and her brother all shared a four-bedroom house.
My mom had me when she was 16, and I was an only child, which is probably why I received a lot of love and didn't miss that my father wasn't around. My father, on the other hand, grew up in an upper-class Jewish home. I finally met him on my 16th birthday when he accidentally bumped into my mom. He was an older, much better-looking version of me. He was charming, smart and had a kind spirit. I told him of my dream since I was 8 to be a filmmaker, and he was there the day I got into NYU film school. He loved movies, and that became our bond, so we went to see films whenever he came around.
One day, I asked him if I could make a short film with him playing himself. It was my first pitch, a story about a father coming to see his son after abandoning him and his mother … and how difficult it was for him to see his son after missing the first 16 years of his life. He said yes, and I cherish that film to this day.
One day, I got the courage to ask him why he never visited me as a child. He explained that he made the difficult decision to stay away because he was embarrassed since he had been disowned by his family, had abused drugs for many years and knew he couldn't provide for me or my mom. Holding a job was impossible for him.
A few years later, I returned to Miami and bumped into him on the street by my house, close to where I met him the first time. He told me he was homeless and had hidden it from me for years. I became a success, but I couldn't even help my father because of his shame, no matter how much I assured him it was OK. He would occasionally call to check in, but it pained him to ask for help, so he stayed away. My father died a few years later alone, without me or any family member by his side.
I wish a place like Chrysalis was around then to help my father get a job that would allow him to face me. Every time I look into the eyes of a Chrysalis client, I see my father, who so badly wanted to be there for his son. Chrysalis does more than just get jobs for the homeless; It gives them back their dignity and self-esteem. My hope is that the clients of Chrysalis will get a job and not stay away from their families for as long as my father did from me.
Since its founding in 1984, Chrysalis, with centers in downtown L.A., Pacoima and Santa Monica, has provided employment services for 42,000 homeless men and women, helping clients secure nearly 2,000 jobs in 2011. Ratner's fellow board members include Fox TV chairs Dana Walden and Gary Newman.
Willie Jenkins, 61
I've been a client off and on since 1988. The employment specialists are friendly. If you're serious about getting a job, they go the extra mile and have helped me get numerous jobs. They help you with the interview, let you utilize the computers and phone, give you clothing, a sack lunch. I've been working in security at a construction site since March. I'd say between this job and the last two, I've been employed about three years now. It's been smooth sailing. Before that I was homeless. I see them at least twice a month; otherwise, they close my file and you never know when I might need the employment specialist. It's always possible I'll get laid off again.
David Lee Thomason, 39
I'm an actor and writer. This time last year, I was unemployed and homeless. Chrysalis really saved me -- I was able to move into the Alexandria apartments, which is low-income housing, and they worked with me to put together a 9-to-5 résumé. I grew up in Jersey, studied film and theater in New York and came here in pursuit of my dream. Everybody has a dream, but it's life skills that Chrysalis gives you. They never talked down to me about my dream, but they were very focused on the reality of right now. I'm in search of work and recently obtained my SAG-AFTRA card. I had the credits -- I did a Ford Focus commercial in 2004, day-player roles on Nash Bridges, a short movie with Judd Nelson and Vondie Curtis-Hall called Crenshaw Nights. My employment specialist helped me find a scholarship fund so I could get caught up on my dues, which I was delinquent on. They regenerated my spirit.
Belinda Muhammed, 55
After 27 years of working in corporate America in Memphis -- Blue Cross Blue Shield for 15 years, G.E., FedEx -- I couldn't pay rent when the economy got bad. I had a cookie recipe and started making cookies and walked all over Memphis to try to get them in stores, but nothing happened. So I got in a truck and stayed with a friend in Austin and got a job at Time Warner Cable. But I ended up on the street, and that was bad. I would get my pillow and blanket and find a place to put my head. I had to stand in line for food. I got to Chrysalis in February and have lived in the women's shelter program at the Weingart Center downtown since March. Chrysalis gave me my confidence back. My goal is to mass produce my foods and put them in stores.
Justin John Paul Sieckman, 31
I'm here to learn how to keep a job. I don't have a problem finding a job, I have a problem keeping a job. Shit, I lost 14 jobs in 10 years -- food service, auto shop, landscaping, construction. It's due to stress, anger, alcohol addiction. I got hired at Del Taco as a manager; I lasted two weeks, then snapped and left. Before that I spent two years in the reserves and three years at Fort Bragg in the 82nd Airborne. I jumped out of planes for three years. Around 21, I realized I was an alcoholic -- and went on for another 10 years. I'm doing rehab now and have been there for four months. At Chrysalis, I've taken classes in job prep, goal planning, recovery and the workplace. I don't have any felonies, so I didn't have to do the putting-the-bars-behind-you class. I'm hoping to get the stability to advance further than I usually do.