In the past year, they’ve planted trees in North Long Beach, volunteered at Beach Streets, participated in a chili cook-off, fed Thanksgiving dinners to the hungry in North Long Beach, participated in neighborhood cleanups and helped build playgrounds.
Everywhere they go, the volunteers for Wrap the Kids can be identified by their pink and black T-shirts. What may not be apparent is that the volunteer force, and everyone involved in the nonprofit, is — or has been — homeless.
Wrap the Kids founder and CEO Susanna Twaite said she has been homeless, intermittently, for 15 or 20 years. When she first graduated from high school, in 1977, her job at Del Taco supported her.
“It was enough to pay the rent, with a roommate,” she said.
But a series of personal setbacks and drug-related convictions cost her that stability, she said, and she’s been staying with friends or sleeping in cars for years.
Her last stint in jail — a year on marijuana-related charges, she said — ended in 2012.
“I couldn’t get a job,” she said. “My roommate got me a sewing machine, and I started making and selling quilts.”
Twaite started out creating quilts for friends, she said, but when her probation officer saw them, she encouraged Twaite to think bigger.
“My probation officer got me set up with an Etsy account,” she said.
In 2014, Twaite registered Samsanna’s Quilts and Accessories as a business. But soon thereafter, Twaite — who says she is off probation and four years sober — decided to think even bigger. Her idea: a nonprofit that would pay homeless people to sew handmade quilts, which would then be delivered to sick and needy children.
She gathered a group of friends, most of whom were homeless, and pitched the idea.
“I was a little skeptical at first,” Wrap the Kids volunteer Kimberly Steele, who describes her living situation as “a couch-surfing kind of thing,” said.
Twaite and her friends spent the first year cobbling together a board of directors, registering their nonprofit with the state, and building trust in the community. They volunteered not only at official events, like the Jane Addams neighborhood cleanup and the Eighth District Long Beach Boulevard cleanup, but also for individuals throughout North Long Beach.
“The residents really like working with them,” Ninth District Councilman Rex Richardson said. “They’re tremendous community partners.”
“We need the community to know about us,” Twaite said.
“We all have a past,” she said. “(Employers) don’t want to hire us. They do background checks.”
Carmelita Spalding, 52, has been sleeping on the streets for the past four years. She used to be a legal secretary, she said, but her life took a turn when she divorced and lost her children. Now, she said, without a way to account for the gap in her resume, she can’t find a job.
“I get to the interview, and inevitably, it comes out,” she said.
And when people hear homeless, Spalding said, they think drug addict — even if it’s not the case. She said she doesn’t use drugs and doesn’t have a criminal record.
Darla Miedema, 60, has a clean record, too, she said. But she was homeless from 1990 to 1999, after her children were removed from her home. Her son, then 2-and-a-half years old, fell out of a window while she was in the bath. He’s now paraplegic.
“I became homeless because I lost my kids,” she said. “Everybody was looking down on me.”
She said her son’s accident devastated her.
“I didn’t want nothing to do with anybody,” she said.
So she walked away — literally. And it took a decade to find her way back to a stable, if precarious, housing situation.
Leslie Henderson, 58, lives in a home her mother has financed with a reverse mortgage. They have a roof over their heads, she said, but no running water or gas. But she said her door is open to others in greater need.
They all said giving back to others is one way to maintain their own sense of self-worth. It’s a part of the North Long Beach homeless community, they explained.
Mike Keller, 54, said his felony record keeps employment out of reach. He said he’s been living under the 710 Freeway for about three years.
“Before that, I was under Del Amo,” he said. “I’ve been homeless since ’97.”
Among the homeless people of North Long Beach, he’s known as the food guy.
“He’s usually got a trailer with him,” Twaite said, gesturing to Keller’s bicycle, “and he delivers food all up and down the river.”
Keller said he collects expired, but edible, food from a few sympathetic businesses in town and shares them throughout the community. He’s angry that the government isn’t doing more to give homeless people a hand up, and he said he’s angry that everyday people don’t do more to help.
“That’s the way I grew up, to help others,” he said.
“I think a lot of times, people like to objectify the homeless,” Richardson said. “The homeless are a part of our social fabric, like anything else.”
“All they need is a job,” Twaite said. “My goal is to pay them so they can become unhomeless.”
And she wants Wrap the Kids to provide the jobs. Everyone, she said, has a skill. They can all do something productive, if given the chance.
“My hope is to help these other homeless people get grounded and get a trade,” she said.
But like the housing situations of the Wrap the Kids volunteers, the fledgling charity has faced instability. Board members have come and gone. Wrap the Kids’ only source of funding, so far, has been from a car wash and a couple of yard sales. Their bank account, at $220, is dwindling. The sewing machines they’ve collected are sitting, unused, in a storage unit. And, as of this week, Twaite said, she’s back to sleeping in her Dodge.
She said finding a home base for Wrap the Kids is a bigger priority for her, right now, than finding steady housing for herself.
“I want to be happy,” she said, crying. “I don’t want to see homelessness anymore. And helping them helps me. I don’t know what to say, except it’s my passion.”
Jennifer Rice Epstein can be reached at email@example.com.
Ed note: In last week’s story about a group of homeless people called Wrap The Kids, mention was made of a toddler falling out of a window. According to the mother, another child pushed the 2-year-old out of the window. The mother was in the bath and the child was being cared for by a teen-aged sibling.