Beyond a helping hand

Adolfo Flores

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Kia Calvin Abbasi has come a long way from handing out dollar bills to the homeless at Santa Monica as a kid. He has moved on to volunteer his time at homeless shelters in the greater Los Angeles area, feeding and clothing the less fortunate.

‘Now that I’ve gotten older I realize that feeding them for one day or giving them some clothes doesn’t remove the problem,’ said Abbasi, president of CSUN’s debate team.

‘Everything has a root, its not that they’re hungry and cold’hellip; but why are they hungry and cold? It’s because they’re starving, because they don’t have a paycheck and they don’t have the means.’

Abbasi’s past work with homeless individuals has inspired to start a program through CSUN to further help those in need. U.-F.I.S.H, which stands for the University of the Foundation for the Initiation of Self-Sufficiency and Hope, a program that would offer two 15-week classes in either basic math or typing for about 50 homeless persons from the San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission.

Abbasi is attempting to establish the program on campus after realizing the need for the homeless to learn these skills, ones’ that managers from surrounding Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Macy’s and K-Mart stores are looking for in potential employees. Abbasi plans to work out an agreement with some of these companies to hire those who go through the classes.

At first they would be temporary workers, but if they work well for six months they would move on to become permanent workers.

‘What U.-F.I.S.H does is two-fold, it helps bring people out of chronic homelessness and then it helps CSUN or whatever school wants to implement it,” said the junior political science and philosophy major.

‘Chronic homelessness is a psychological oppression where (people) are so low, they have been homeless for so long they don’t feel as if they can come out of it,’ said Abbasi. ‘The only way they can (get out of it), as research has shown, is a stable paycheck, and I realize that feeding people is not enough.’

Most of the funding for U.-F.I.S.H. would come from grants. All he needs from CSUN are rooms, preferably with computers.

‘CSUN wouldn’t have to pay for anything, all I’m asking for are two rooms,’ Abbasi said. ‘At any given day there are 60 to 85 rooms on campus just sitting there.’

Abbasi’s dream foundation is based on the proverb: ‘Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he will never go hungry.’

While Abbasi lives a comfortable life now, it wasn’t always that way. About eleven years ago, a messy divorce left him, his mother and little sister with nothing. He saw what it was like to have no food or bed.

‘It changed my perspective on life when that happened because everything collapsed, everything was taken away,’ he said. ‘When I saw what it was like to be impoverished and homeless I was just like ‘this is what people go through night after night, day after day, with no sight of hope, no push, with no help, with one meal a day.”

Although the family eventually came out of their situation, it left a lasting impression on him.

The L.A. Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness estimates that there are 6,411 people who are homeless at any given time in the San Fernando Valley, which makes up 9.3 percent of the total homeless population in L.A. County. Adam Harrell is one of them,’ he has been homeless for six years.

The 24-year-old hopes that U.-F.I.S.H. will help him should it come into effect. He’s had a few jobs here and there, but nothing stable.

‘If this thing is for real and I can actually have the tools to learn I will’hellip; If I learn and go work at Wal-Mart. And if I actually had a stable job, I wouldn’t loose it.’

For several weeks he worked for a packaging company, while living under a bridge in a tent by the Los Angeles river.

‘I couldn’t take a shower and they let me go because it became a hygiene issue,’ Harrell said.

It’s not like he doesn’t have a desire to work, he said. When Harrell goes to job interviews potential employers almost immediately disregard him. He dropped out of high school and has limited working experience.

‘They look at you and think ‘this guy’s not worth anything’,’ Harrell said, coughing. ‘It’s almost like saying on a resume that you committed a felony and when you don’t have anything with nobody to help you, nobody takes you seriously.’

Being homeless drains the hope out of people, he said, and before people know it they’re in deep over their heads as ‘homelessness breeds homelessness.’

‘You don’t feel like anything, you feel like no one, you’re overlooked, it’s about not being relevant,’ Harrell said. ‘You know how (Barack) Obama gives people hope? Well he doesn’t give me hope because he doesn’t even know me, but it’s Kia who gives me hope.’

Being homeless doesn’t give him the luxury of dreaming big. His aspirations might be basic to some, but to him they’re everything.

‘My dream is to become a functioning member of society,’ Harrell said. ‘I see myself in an apartment a little place in the valley and coming home from work and buying Burger King on my way home and eating it’hellip; (U.-F.I.S.H.) could literally save my life.’

The San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission on Saticoy Avenue sits behind the railroad tracks and every now and then, when a train passes by, the silence is broken. The Mission has 55 beds, but for every one family they take in, 30 families are turned away.
‘Los Angeles is the homeless capital of the world,’ said Director Ken Craft. ‘One out of every nine homeless persons lives here in L.A.’

‘I think (U.-F.I.S.H.) is a brilliant idea because we tell people when they come here, ‘you’re never going to break out of your homelessness if you don’t get a job”hellip; and many of them lack basic necessary skills to be highly employable,’ Craft said.

‘ ‘We need to break the cycle of poverty by teaching people how to be self sufficient, self reliable and self determined where they can provide for themselves,’ added Craft. ‘Where they recognize that they can be responsible and take care of themselves and their own families.’

Some assume that people are homeless because they’re lazy, and unfortunately for many people perception is reality, Craft said.

But if they came to the shelter they would see another side of homelessness, explained Craft.

Jackie Cooper, 33, and mother of two, was living with her husband and stepfather before moving into the San Fernando Rescue Mission. Most of her husband’s earnings went to child support, so the family lived off the tips he made at the Bicycle Casino and her stepfather’s earnings.

But when Cooper’s alchoholic stepfather didn’t come home one day, the family couldn’t get by. She’s applied for several jobs and is currently waiting for a call back.

When informed of the potential of U.-F.I.S.H. her eyes lit up a bit and her head rose.
‘I would like to do something like that, I used to take data entry classes, but it was hard because of my son,’ Cooper said holding 5-and-a-half month-old Jacob while her daughter, Savana, played nearby.

Her children are one of the 1,009 homeless children in the San Fernando Valley, according to the L.A. Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness.

She said that she wants to return to a data entry job so that her children won’t live in the shelter for the rest of their lives and to be able to provide them a stable home.

Cooper is among many that Abbasi can help through his vision, both in Los Angeles and abroad. His dedication and drive has the potential of making his vision a reality.’

When Abbasi approached the director of the debate team at CSUN, John Kephart, assistant professor in the communications department about U.-F.I.S.H. he was blown away by the ‘forethought and foresight’ he put into it.

‘It was not only an idea to help the homeless, but something so specific to meet not only regional needs which would help further
the university’s goal of being regionally focused and nationally recognized, but also a practical productive way to help the homeless population in the valley.’

Kephart serves as Abbasi’s sounding board. They bounce ideas off each other and work together to write grants.

Recently Abbasi and U-F.I.S.H got the support of Associated Students; he is one step closer to making the program a reality. While support alone might not seem like much, it’s crucial for Abbasi at this point.

He plans on meeting with President Jolene Koester in the following weeks to discuss CSUN’s commitment to U.-F.I.S.H. as well.

‘I think the chances of getting (U.-F.I.S.H.) approved are 99 percent because I haven’t talked to one person, school senator, homeless guy on the street, or random person who thinks this is a terrible idea.’

In a year he sees 200 students taking the courses with a 55 percent success rate, which comes out to 110 people being hired and that’s his ‘conservative’ guess. His ultimate goal is to have U.-F.I.S.H. apply to every California State University as well as any other university.

‘(We’ll) be handing them an opportunity on a silver platter but this isn’t welfare. We’re not giving you a check for nothing they’ll have to work for this,’ said Abbasi.’

‘Like you heard during the elections about reaching across the aisle, I feel like this can reach across the aisle.’

Homelessness in the San Fernando Valley

– San Fernando Valley has 2025 chronically homeless individuals who make up 31.6% of the homeless population.

– 6411 individuals in San Fernando Valley are homeless at a point in time. The homeless population in San Fernando Valley makes up 9.3% of the total homeless population in Los Angeles County

– 82.7% of San Fernando Valley’s homeless are unsheltered.

– The ratio of homeless families to homeless individuals is 9.5 families for every 100.