LOS ANGELES — There’s just one thing Derek Cousins kept from his life on the street: the clothes on his back as he left life in a tent behind him.
“I was, I thought, an incurable crack head. I smoked so much dope from 1988 until recent,” Cousins said candidly. Most of his adult life he lived in encampments and survived from day to day. He now understands it was an existence full of trauma.
“I got a gun pulled on me. I got my tooth knocked out... I got in fights protecting my tent," he said.
But Cousins has started a new life as he approaches his one-year anniversary of sobriety. He’s getting a second chance at life thanks to a little- known program inside the City Attorney’s office called LA Door. The program is spearheaded by prosecutor Jamie Larson, who managers grant money from Prop 47 to pay for outreach teams in South Los Angeles.
The teams offer folks living on the street housing, healthcare, and rehab.
“It’s really difficult for people to make a shift but we’ve been going out there every day for the past two-and-a-half years,” Larson said.
Now that the possession of drugs is misdemeanor, Larson says solutions to big problems like homelessness and addiction need to come from outside the criminal justice system. She says in many cases, outreach is more effective than prosecution.
“We have really good retention rates and if you had arrested any of these people, anyone who’s on our caseload: homeless, substance dependent, mentally ill, and chronically so, none of these folks would have connected on a court-based program. They just wouldn’t have, not on a misdemeanor,” Larson said.
In fact, LA Door encountered Derek Cousins on just the right day.
“I went and got a 3.5 grams of cocaine. Never got a chance to smoke it. I said a prayer and it was answered,” Cousins said. The prayer was answered by an LA Door outreach worker who responded to Counsins’ plea for help immediately. He got Cousins off the street and into housing with a support team.
Therapists and counselors taught Cousins how to talk about his trauma. Now he’s moving forward, active in his recovery, living in shared housing provided by the non-profit Ms. Hazel's House.
He thanks what he calls a power greater than his own understanding and LA Door.