After nearly two decades, she leaves homeless agency, but not homeless people

Jeanette Rowe doesn’t buy the charge from businesspeople and residents that homeless people who turn down help are “service resistant.”

Not even this month, when Beverly Walker, 76 — a homeless woman who Rowe feared was at risk of being attacked — declined an offer to trade in her mattress on a freeway underpass for a motel room.  

“She wants to take real estate classes, get an RV, something small. If we had it, she’d go just like that,” said Rowe, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s soon-to-retire outreach director. “If nothing else, she has a sense of who she wants to be. I dig that these people have a choice.”

Nearly three decades ago, Rowe, 65, helped pioneer the then-novel idea of finding homeless people in the streets and helping them navigate the social service labyrinth, instead of hoping they’d scale the bureaucratic behemoth on their own. She’s stepping down in January after 19 years with the homeless services agency’s emergency response team, having seen her department grow from two staff members to 85.

“Finally we’re getting help,” she said on a recent outreach trip. “It makes it easier to retire.”

The job was not without danger; workers have to distinguish homeless individuals from the gang members, drug dealers and pimps who infiltrate their camps. It’s endless: Rowe leaves her cellphone on for midnight calls. When Union Station expelled hundreds of homeless people camped out inside, she worked through Christmas Eve and Day to get them on a train home, or into a shelter.

“Not seven days, but six,” Rowe described her typical schedule. 

Mike Neely, a Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority commission member who worked outreach with her in the late 1980s, said of Rowe, “It takes a special person not only to go out and do the outreach, but also have the wherewithal to transport them and find them a place to stay.

“For her it’s more of a calling as opposed to a job.”

Rowe, 65, calls herself an “old hippie.” Her braids stream over her shoulders, and her waxed canvas “intake bag” is battered by decades of use.  

“My mother always said you only need one pair of shoes,” said Rowe, who remembers her upbringing in Newark, N.J., as very poor.

“But I never felt poor,” she said.

Her mother kept the back door, and her dinner table, open to a stream of visitors down on their luck.

“I never slept by myself until I left home for college” at Cal State Los Angeles and Dominguez Hills, where she studied music, Rowe said.

She was an accountant when the plight of young homeless people in Hollywood drew her to the cause. She lives with her partner in Leimert Park, an artsy, largely African American neighborhood. 

Rowe said the long fight to end homelessness has been plagued by stops and starts. Until 2005, officials had no reliable homeless count, which she likened to trying to fix dinner without knowing who’s eating. Sobering centers, serviced by skid row’s “boozer cruiser,” and short-term rent vouchers were cut off for lack of funding.

Now the city and county, which dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars to homelessness, are “heading in the right direction,” she said. A $1.2-billion homeless housing bond passed in November, and the county has another measure to allocate hundreds of millions of dollars to homeless services.

The sobering center and rapid rehousing vouchers are back, and the coordinated entry system, a detailed database of homeless people and their conditions, is tracking how clients are progressing.

Drug  abuse, however, is “through the roof” and there’s still not enough housing.

“Housing is the key,” she said. 

Rowe said she could bear the heartbreaking stories of homeless individuals because she feels she made their lives better. What still gets to her is society’s indifference.

“The thing that get me the most is this is our country,” Rowe said, tearing up. “Why is it like this?

“I had a client who thought he was invisible. Literally,” Rowe said. “People would walk by and ignore him. Nobody had said anything to him for so long he thought he was invisible. That’s the depth of homelessness.”

This year, the homelessness crisis landed in force at Rowe’s doorstep, with up to 70 people sleeping in Leimert Plaza Park, attended by drug dealers and pimps. During an outreach session there last week, Rowe offered to drive Dannell Isabel Page, 47, a Navy veteran who lost a husband to suicide, from the plaza to the library to get an ID card that would entitle her to veteran benefits.

“I have to drink my beer first,” Page said. 

“Have you been in detox?” Rowe asked. 

“I hate those places,” Page said. 

“Everybody hates them,” Rowe responded smoothly. ”You can give it a shot. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.”

A woman in a long, mauve-tinted wig cut her conversation with Rowe short. “The voices told her to quit talking to me,” Rowe said.

Police came and went as Pearl Cortez, the homeless emergency-response team program manager, sat on the phone, trying to get a county mental health team to get the woman out of the park. Finally, they agreed to come. 

“That tied up that team for three hours, waiting for Department of Mental Health,” Rowe said.

“We will not leave a situation,” Cortez said. “There’s no reason to leave her there.”

Rowe said she will stay busy rescuing animals and organizing concerts for homeless people with a musician friend from New York. She may make a trip to a Scottish archaeological project.

She’ll be back in the streets, too.

“I’m not going to stop doing this. It’s what I’m good at,” Rowe said. “I’ll be a rogue agent out there doing outreach.”

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