From time to time, news articles announce the latest numbers of homeless people in the United States, usually when a rise or fall is especially stark. But it is far less often that articles showcase the people who dedicate their time and resources to helping the homeless, work that takes place every day, regardless of how the numbers change.
One such story graced the pages of the Los Angeles Times earlier this year, highlighting the work of Anthony Ruffin, an L.A. social worker who helps homeless people with severe mental and physical illness.
Ruffin has 20 or more clients he checks on regularly. They include the Hollywood 14, who are so sick — some of them are barely alive — and have been identified by community leaders as priorities. It isn’t uncommon for Ruffin to find people sitting in their own urine and feces.
His regulars include amputees and diabetics and drug addicts who can never get enough to kill the pain. Some are partially paralyzed and many are ghosts, their former selves barely visible in the shadows of unrelenting psychosis.
Ruffin works all manner of hours in all kinds of weather to ensure the safety of his clients.
“Social service is a 9 to 5 business, but homelessness is a 24-hour business,” he told me. “I like to connect with people early morning or late at night, when there are no distractions … and there’s a moment of clarity. It’s just me and that person, and it’s very intimate. It’s like my little office, my environment, and I love it.”
Asked what inspired his life of devotion to the homeless, Ruffin shared how homelessness showed up in his life through a father he didn't really know, after years of struggling himself to find his way:
That began in earnest at age 32, when he went to vote. At the polling place, he bumped into a social worker who said she knew a man with the same last name as his. It turned out to be the father he had not seen in 20 years.
Ruffin learned that his father was homeless and had hustled a job as a courier at a downtown courthouse. Attorneys who didn’t want to pay for parking or didn’t have time would pull up to the curb and hand legal documents to Ruffin’s father, who would run them into the courthouse.
Years earlier, Ruffin learned, his father had lost a steady job and went into a spiral. On future visits with his father and stepmother, who now have an apartment, Ruffin met other homeless people and identified with their struggle.
Ruffin fought hard to get to where he is today, overcoming a youth plagued by a learning disability, time in jail, and largely wandering through life. But he worked his way up to case manager at Housing Works and loves what he does:
“You see someone get into an apartment and you know you fought the fight all the way, and didn’t take no for an answer, and they call family members and say, ‘I’m housed. I got an apartment.’
“That’s when I cry. We usually both cry, just the two of us there together.”