SOUTH LOS ANGELES – It’s rush hour on the Harbor Freeway in South Los Angeles and those who live underneath it are slowly waking up to another day.
Leaning over a woman struggling to get up, Angel Espinoza urges her to get help.
“You know, the last time we talked you wanted some help. I’m here to help you,” he said. The woman needs to get through court-appointed rehab to regain custody of her son, Espinoza later explained.
But she was in no state to talk at the time, so he left her a sandwich and moved on.
Espinoza is a peer advocate with LA Door, a little-known program in the L.A. City Attorney’s Office that’s funding outreach programs in South L.A.
They’re dedicated to getting lives back on track, even if it means walking through the ashes of a tent fire – a sign of retaliation by drug dealers who aren’t getting their money.
“It’s really messy and complicated,” said prosecutor Jamie Larson, who is spearheading the program using grant funds from Proposition 47. Money California saves by not incarcerating citizens for crimes like drug possession and shoplifting gets directed into grants for programs focused on mental health and substance-use treatment. It adds up to about $100,000 a year.
For LA Door, the City Attorney’s Office is not involved in the actual outreach, that’s done by non-profit Project 180. The L.A. City Attorney's Office manages the grant requirements and helps expunge the records of their clients. Since January 2018, the group has helped 650 people receive services and housed 112 clients.
“LA Door is filling a gap by mental health, public health, other parts of the social safety net that should be there,” Larson said. “It’s not our expertise to do it.”
But it is the expertise of the peer advocates like Espinoza. He served 20 years in prison for murder, overcame heroin addiction, and homelessness. A resume that might disqualify him from other jobs makes him an asset to LA Door.
“I like to make people laugh. I think I like to do that because I was so bitter and mean for so many years,” Espinoza said.
He knows the system because he lived it, so he can go to places and talk to people other service providers deem too dangerous. And he shows up again, and again, and again offering food, housing, and services.
The last stop of the day was a Metro-owned parking lot that was recently a crime scene. I’m warned everyone is probably armed.
Espinoza explains it’s part of a mindset.
“For a lot of years I was angry and bitter. I didn’t want to see you happy and if you were happy I wanted to take that from you,” Espinoza said. But because he’s been there, he knows every single person has the capacity for change.
“My heart now is compassionate, loving,” he said.
He won’t give up on anybody, knowing it can take years of simply showing up to change a heart.