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Homeless advocate Tonja Boykin guests on the Community Intelligence Podcast.

 

For this episode I met with advocate for the homeless Tonja Boykin. As Chief Operating Officer of the Weingart Center, a transitional housing provider or those living on the streets of Skid Row in Los Angeles, she’s on the forefront of solving the city’s homeless crisis. Tonja shares a brief history of Skid Row and relates how she’s leveraging a long career in community development to help break the cycle of homelessness.

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Episode Transcript

John Bwarie: So, I’m sitting with Tonja Boykin, Chief Operating Office at the Weingart Center, which has a really deep history in Los Angeles, not just where we’re sitting here, which is in Skid Row, and the communities east of downtown Los Angeles, but across the city I know that the Weingart Center is doing things for a lot of people in a lot of places. And I’m really looking forward to learning a bit about that work. But let’s start, Tonja, with this mysterious place called Skid Row.

Tonja Boykin: Sure. A little bit of a history lesson: Skid Row has been around as long as we’ve been building railroads and actually creating Los Angeles. As the railroads were being built, as construction was taking place here in Los Angeles, there were workers that came from all over the world and the country to do that work, whether it was someone who was doing construction or actually physically building railroads.’ And so, as a result, lots of the what we call SROs, Single Room Occupancy hotels, opened up, which there are a tremendous amount here in this community, to house those individuals. And often, you’re a guy or… well, you would be a guy at that particular point in history-

John Bwarie: So, we’re talking 130, 150 years ago.

Tonja Boykin: We’re talking 150 years ago…

John Bwarie: Yeah.

Tonja Boykin: These gentlemen, they’re away from their families, away from their loved ones; they get paid at the end of the day, they go out, they’re drinking, they’re having a great time. And so, ultimately, some of those individuals really landed on the skids.

And so, Skid Row was really named because people ended up on the skids. At the same time that we saw this increase of individuals that were publicly inebriated, losing their jobs for one reason or another, social service providers, largely missions, churches, the Catholic Church and various groups start to kind of pour into the community, as well, to provide service to these individuals. So, the idea that this sort of happened in the 20 or 30 years ago is actually untrue. The reason that there are service providers in this community, the reason that there are so many of these single-room hotels, it’s because they served a purpose over some 150 years ago.

And so, the community, the individuals who were on the skids, so to speak, have changed over time. But the service providers and the hotels stayed, and they ended up becoming sort of a refuge for those who had fallen on hard times. So, if you think about it: if you didn’t have a job and didn’t have a place to live, you could come to Skid Row and you can get a room for a night in a hotel, you could go across the street to a mission or a church and get a meal, and/or you could meet with others who were talking about reforming their lives.

So, social service providers over time have evolved to continue to meet the needs of the changing population, which now are largely homeless individuals because there are still the services that are being provided, there are still the missions that are providing meals. And it’s just grown. The reason that I think we’ve seen a major increase in homelessness is because of these, what I call, the sort of streaming factors that get people on the streets.

So, we have an educational system that isn’t serving most of our community well, and when I say our community, I say California, to be exact, and Los Angeles specifically. We have a foster care system that isn’t working the way that I believe it was originally intended. Because one in three individuals that are going to be on the streets now are foster youth who turn 18, they haven’t been given the skills that they need to be successful, and so, they come to the street.

John Bwarie: Wow.

Tonja Boykin: We also have a lack of decent quality, affordable housing for many people. And that continues. So, those kinds of issues sort of feed the spigot, if you will, of individuals falling down on their luck.

John Bwarie: So, from where you sit, you’re one of those service providers you mentioned…

Tonja Boykin: Yes.

John Bwarie: What does it look like? How many people are here? Is it the same group of people? Do you see a rotation of people coming through? Do you see a stagnant population? Is it really growing, or is it just more visible, the numbers of people in Skid Row? And this is to acknowledge that Los Angeles and the region of Southern California has a homelessness crisis going on.

Tonja Boykin: Absolutely.

John Bwarie: And that this may be viewed as perhaps one of the epicenters.

Tonja Boykin: Sure.

John Bwarie: But this is not the only place this is happening.

Tonja Boykin: By no means. Homelessness exists in every part of this city, the state, and I think other states are experiencing the same thing. But I think after 2008 when we had a major economic decline, you had a group of folks who have been here for many years, and then you also saw people lose their homes, lose their jobs, be unable to provide for their kids.

And that is about our economy, our equity and our equality that we are struggling with right now, that has increased the problem. You have, to answer your question, we don’t see many transient people coming and going; we do see a pretty stable population. In fact, there are many in this city who believe that Skid Row is a community. I agree to a certain extent that it is a community, because you have people who have formed relationships here, who have created a sense of family here, so in that sense, yes, it’s a community. But I also think it’s a community unlike any other in the United States.

John Bwarie: And how so?

Tonja Boykin: Well, I think a typical community has bathrooms, showers. Has resources for the population. In typical communities, and I’ve been in affordable and permanent supportive housing for 35 years, so, building a real community means that there are multiple economic levels of housing for people to live in. They don’t currently exist here although many like us at the Weingart Center are working on that. Sanitation. Policing. All the things that go into making a community that you or I grew up in, don’t really exist here.

John Bwarie: Well, let’s pause there. We’ll come back to that for a second.

Tonja Boykin: Sure.

John Bwarie: But let’s talk about the communities that you’ve built, because that’s probably part of the reason that you were both brought here and you were attracted to the area-

Tonja Boykin: Absolutely.

John Bwarie: Is that you’re a community-builder for 30 years.

Tonja Boykin: Yes, I am.

John Bwarie: More than 30 years, and I know that you’re from Los Angeles, right? You grew up here.

Tonja Boykin: Yes.

John Bwarie: You have many levels of education from Los Angeles institution. From all your years of experience building housing for Mercy Housing, which you spent more than a decade…

Tonja Boykin: 17 years.

John Bwarie: 17 years. And that was across the state.

Tonja Boykin: Yes.

John Bwarie: It wasn’t just in Southern California.

Tonja Boykin: Across the state, and actually outside of the state, as well. I did housing in Chicago, in Denver, all over.

John Bwarie: So, when you’re looking at building… and these are residential communities that you’re building?

Tonja Boykin: That’s correct.

John Bwarie: What is your approach to that? As someone now with all this experience and all this education and passion for community and for housing people, what is the approach that you take when you say, “Okay, if we’re going to build this community, it’s not just four walls and a roof”?

Tonja Boykin: Sure.

John Bwarie: What is it? What’s the formula?

Tonja Boykin: I believe you have to find out what people want. So, it’s based… I think, having done this for so long, the overarching theme that I’ve experienced, whether it’s in Los Angeles or in San Francisco, is individuals want a decent quality place to live, they want an area to raise their children that’s safe, they want opportunities; they don’t want to live far away from home because that takes away from quality time of the things that really matter.

So, when I go into a community, I do a lot of on-the-ground meeting people. Wherever that site is, I fan out. I want to know, who are the key stakeholders in the community? And when I say stakeholders, I’m not talking about your mayor or your police officer.

John Bwarie: Who are they?

Tonja Boykin: They’re important, but they’re the people who… their aunt Susie, who’s lived on the corner for 30 years, she has an opinion, she’s been a part of that community.

It’s the grocery store owner whose third-generation family has been on that same corner for years. It’s the kids in the neighborhood who have an opinion about what their quality of life should be. So, I employ a variety of methods. For example, in San Francisco, I had the privilege of working on one of the largest public housing sites, the Sunnydale. So, 40 years institutional poverty, public housing, almost 1,800 individuals literally over a 50-mile radius. Huge!

John Bwarie: Wow.

Tonja Boykin: And I moved in, basically. I asked for one of the public housing units that was vacant, they gave me that, and first, I hired individuals from the community to help me understand their neighborhood. I hired kids to help me paint it. I brought in furniture to make it feel like a home. I had people come help me build a garden, and literally, it was me in the backyard of this place with a shovel. And neighbors walking up saying, “What are you doing?”

“Putting in a garden.” There were no healthy food choices in the community, so rather than standing in front of everyone saying, “There’s no healthy food choices. What do you think?”, let’s put some in and let’s share. I opened my doors to the community. I had a big chalkboard wall with bright-colored markers, and I’d write a question of the day, and kids could walk in, get a piece of fruit, have some water, and talk to me.

John Bwarie: So, let me just clarify, was this a community center, or were you actually living there?

Tonja Boykin: I didn’t live there. It was a unit…

John Bwarie: A unit.

Tonja Boykin: Just like the units that everyone else lived in, and so, it wasn’t considered a community center. It was my office.

John Bwarie: Got it.

Tonja Boykin: It was me getting to know the community.

John Bwarie: So, you spent a lot of time there, you just weren’t sleeping there.

Tonja Boykin: Every day. Two and a half years, from about nine in the morning till six or seven in the evening, understanding the community. And so, I took that approach and asked a kid, “Where is it safe in your neighborhood?”

“Well, it’s not.”

“Okay…”

John Bwarie: And what do you do with that information, then?

Tonja Boykin: What you do with that information is you build a community map. So, when you’re going to go into a community that [inaudible 00:11:52] and you’re going to put in lighting, and you’re going to look at schools, and you’re going to build housing, and parks, and places for people to play, you want to know where they should be. And you get by it. You get by and you build community by asking those questions, by saying there are no wrong answers, “And I want to know what you think.” So, I’d say…

I took the kids and gave them cameras, and said, “Walk around your neighborhood and tell me what you like and you don’t like. Take pictures. I will process those pictures and we’ll throw them up on the wall, and that’s how we’ll figure out where we build the community.”

John Bwarie: This was before cell phones?

Tonja Boykin: Before cell phones. Well, you know, you don’t want to give a nine-year-old a cell phone.

John Bwarie: Right. Right, right.

Tonja Boykin: But a disposable camera?

John Bwarie: Absolutely!

Tonja Boykin: It’s fun!

John Bwarie: So, you had the potential for raising hopes.

Tonja Boykin: Absolutely.

John Bwarie: That if people… you ask a question of someone… It’s this kind of work. You ask them, someone, for their opinion, what you do with that answer is really valuable. One thing is to map it and take it and use it as sort of a asset-mapping or gap analysis.

Tonja Boykin: It’s asset-mapping, yes.

John Bwarie: But what happens when you’ve built that relationship, someone says, “Yeah, this in unsafe,” or someone says, “Yeah, we really need a new field or a new community garden,” and you hear it over and over again, and you believe…

Tonja Boykin: Sure.

John Bwarie: But you’re not the… printing money, you don’t have unlimited resources; how do you handle the needs that sometimes are greater than the resources available that you have at your disposal?

Tonja Boykin: Sure. That happens.

John Bwarie: Absolutely.

Tonja Boykin: One, I think it’s about managing expectations. I have conversations, like you and I are having, that are real. I don’t promise what I can’t deliver, and I manage that conversation by being very real. “You want three square blocks of park?” And I’ve heard that before. “That isn’t going to happen. But let’s talk about what we can do, and I’m on your side. So, I’m going to bring other people to the table who have that power.”

For example, back in Sunnydale, significant issues with the police. Community and the police department were at odds. So, I had Saturday afternoons where I invited the police for donuts and coffee. Sounds a little cliché, but they came through the doors. The kids I was working with, and the adults I was working with, came through the doors, and we had conversations about it.

For the community, they saw me as a bridge-builder, as someone who said, “I can’t solve everything but I can give you a voice, I can teach you how to use that voice, I can put you in the room with the people who need to hear you,” and it starts with those small wins. When I work in communities, I usually hear from people, “Oh, they’ve told us this before. You’re here again…”

John Bwarie: “You’re just the next in line.”

Tonja Boykin: “You’re the next person…” And that means that you have to identify small goals and small wins. Some small goals are: you’re missing a stop light or a stop sign on the corner and kids in the community have been hit. Well, I don’t have anything to do with that. But I can push for that with them, have that happen, and it did happen. And once it happened, people went, “Oh, she’s not full of crap.”

John Bwarie: Baloney.

Tonja Boykin: I have a colorful language, so I’m really working on it!

John Bwarie: I don’t know if we have a bleeping system for the podcast, but it’s okay.

Tonja Boykin: I’m trying!

John Bwarie: No, it’s good.

Tonja Boykin: But, okay, it worked. So, we now have a stop sign. So, now what can we do?

John Bwarie: What’s next?

Tonja Boykin: What’s next?

John Bwarie: You know, I’m sitting here listening, thinking about the experiences that I’ve had in communities, as well, and when you get involved and you make relationships, now it’s about… and that’s what community is, is you’ve acknowledged it’s the relationships. What happens when you move on to your next project? How do you make that transition? Because I’m thinking in my mind, two and a half years, you know these people, they know you-

Tonja Boykin: Very well.

John Bwarie: Your lives are connected.

Tonja Boykin: Still are.

John Bwarie: But at some point, your role, that formal role, will end, you’ll move on to the next project, you’ve achieved what you’ve been there to do.

Tonja Boykin: Sure.

John Bwarie: How do you make that transition? What do you do to prepare for it, and how do you make sure that they don’t feel like, “Well, we knew it.”

Tonja Boykin: “She’s gone.”

John Bwarie: “Another one came and left.”

Tonja Boykin: Well…

John Bwarie: It’s hard, I know.

Tonja Boykin: You know, I always talk about the work I’m doing and the role that I need to play within the scope of building community. But I have to be honest with you: I don’t lose those connections because it’s a real thing. I have students, I have neighbors from that community that, with this age of technology, email me, follow me on Instagram, I follow them back. One of the young men, I wasn’t running an after-school program, but they just kept showing up and I would beg them to go home, just graduated from college, and I got an invitation.

John Bwarie: How many years later?

Tonja Boykin: I stay connected to people because I think that’s what’s important. Oh, God, now it’s been seven or eight.

John Bwarie: Wow.

Tonja Boykin: And I still stay connected. I visit often. I mean, I’m really proud to go to San Francisco and go into that community, and see that I left something that’s standing, that’s in use. That’s my legacy, and I enjoy that. I want to see that kid I told that they could go to college, graduate from college. That was sincere. I mean, I think that’s the other thing.

As people get to know me as a community-builder, I am sincere about the work. I sincerely want to see it happen. And I’m the first person to get angry when it doesn’t.

I’m the first person to be at the meetings, standing up, saying to that civic leader, “You promised me this, and you didn’t do it,” and the community sees me do that. So, I walk away, I think, from a neighborhood leaving them with the best of me, continuing to support them in what it is they’re doing, and have some integrity about it. I’m not just a mouthpiece, you know? I do silly things here in Skid Row, not just the clients that are in our building but the people that are in the community, they see me every morning. I say good morning, I ask people’s names, I shake their hands. It’s the holidays; I walk out and talk to people.

John Bwarie: So, describe your commute to work.

Tonja Boykin: It’s less than five minutes.

John Bwarie: By car or by foot?

Tonja Boykin: I do both.

John Bwarie: Okay.

Tonja Boykin: I love to walk to work just because, having been in the Bay Area for so long, where you walk; what a foreign concept in Los Angeles, but we’re getting back there!

John Bwarie: Absolutely.

Tonja Boykin: I really enjoy walking to work and seeing the same people over and over again, and getting to know them. But it depends on the day, and what I have to do. I can take an Uber and it’s literally not even five minutes away.

John Bwarie: So, if you’re walking, just walk us through what would be a typical walk…

Tonja Boykin: Typical morning.

John Bwarie: A typical walk, what’s that experience? Because you’re not living on Skid Row.

Tonja Boykin: No.

John Bwarie: But you’re in the neighborhood.

Tonja Boykin: I live in the Garment District. I live right next to the flower mart, so there are so many business owners that are right along my walk who’ve been in this city for many, many years, who are small business owners. I say good morning to each of them. I always say hello. I walk through the flower district, which is not a bad thing to do in the morning. And I hit the corner of 7th and San Pedro, and the community changes.

John Bwarie: And is that the boundary for what would, quote, “define” Skid Row? Because it’s a hard place to, quote, “define.”

Tonja Boykin: You know, I don’t think there’s a… it’s defined any longer.

John Bwarie: Okay.

Tonja Boykin: I would definitely say a decade ago, it was very much confined to, let’s say, San Pedro where we are, all the way to Alameda, and then you have the arts district on that side, and then on this side, you have sort of the historic core and the garment district, and flowers.

It’s moving. It’s growing. I mean, I think people who are sleeping in their tents don’t want to be in the middle of chaos. They want peace and quiet, so that’s why-

John Bwarie: And that’s what’s happening in the core?

Tonja Boykin: That’s what’s happening. So, why wouldn’t you move to a place that’s quieter, where people don’t see you? So, I don’t think there’s boundaries anymore.

John Bwarie: Okay. But you see a change at 7th and…

Tonja Boykin: At 7th and San Pedro. Actually, 7th and Julian, to be exact. You see a change. But I pass the fire department, I love those guys; the Skid Row Nine are defenders and caretakers of the community to a great degree, and so, I always stop and speak with them. And then I see the same people in their tents, and they see me. I largely have to walk in the middle of the street because you can’t walk on the sidewalk, but I talk to the people that are in their places, I treat folks with respect, I say good morning. They now see me every morning.

I ask how they’re doing. They see me in the community walking my dog, and they’ll say, “Where’s your dog?”, or, “How’s that going?” They’ll even say, “Hey, Tonja. The guy down the street there’s having a bad moment. Why don’t you walk the other way?” They protect me.

John Bwarie: So, you’ve built a relationship there.

Tonja Boykin: I’ve built relationships, but it’s very simple. We were all raised that when you pass someone on the street, you look them in the eye, and you acknowledge them. It’s as simple as that.

People want to be acknowledged. They’re not invisible, and I find that if I look you in the eye and say good morning, or if I have to walk in the middle of the street, “Excuse me, sir. Pardon me, ma’am.” Showing individuals respect. They turn around and say, “Oh, you look lovely today,” or, “How are you?”, or, “Good morning!” It’s just common courtesy. There’s no recipe. We already all learned this, but I think we just forget, you know? I think we walk around in our little worlds with our phones, and we’re not looking up, and I think that’s a shame. Because I think you make… you create community by being in it.

John Bwarie: Absolutely.

Tonja Boykin: And you got to be in it! And I just like to be in it.

John Bwarie: Let’s talk a little bit about the Weingart Center. You’ve been here since 2016…

Tonja Boykin: Yes.

John Bwarie: And you’re basically operations guru. You have to run the show. I like to say that your work-

Tonja Boykin: With a lot of really amazing people, yeah.

John Bwarie: Oh, totally! So, let’s talk about how big is it as an organization? Staff, service, clients?

Tonja Boykin: Sure. We have 187 employees, full-time and part-time, it’s a mix of that. Our building across the street is 12 stories, the Elray Hotel, formerly the Elray Hotel. We can house up to 623 individuals.

John Bwarie: At one site?

Tonja Boykin: At the one site. We are not a shelter; we are a transitional housing facility. So, their rooms, we may have a couple of dorms here and there, but largely, it’s one room or two people in a room. Bathrooms, showers, all the things you need, the laundry are all there, and in addition to those sort of basic things, we have clinical services. We have case managers that are on-site that are there to help you move out of whatever is keeping you from being successful.

If it’s a mental health issue, we have clinicians. If it’s workforce development, we have individuals who do that. We have an entire staff that focus on helping you get the records you need and documents so that you can go back to work, giving you the proper tools whether it’s resume writing or getting on a computer, doing those kinds of things, and then we have folks that go out and work with job seekers all over, and we place people in employment.

We have a full-service kitchen and we serve some 300,000 meals a year.

John Bwarie: So, is that just for your approximately 600 residents?

Tonja Boykin: The café…

John Bwarie: All those services you’ve described are just for the residents within that…

Tonja Boykin: Well, I would say that we have an access center, so people can come in off the street, and our goal, if you walk in and you want to be off the street, our team will get you a bed. Get you in, get you settled. We’ll figure out how that’s going to get paid for or where you’re going to end up later, but that’s the first step. And once that person walks through the door and says, “I want to get off the street,” our team makes sure that they’re stable, they’ve got a hot meal, and we start to talk about, “What do you want to do? And what do you need?” And we go from there.

John Bwarie: And it’s the traditional supportive housing, if I can call it that.

Tonja Boykin: Absolutely. Yes.

John Bwarie: With those wraparound services, right? All those right terms. What’s the duration of stay? What’s the range? I mean, are people here for a week, and some people are here for two years? I mean, is that…

Tonja Boykin: It depends on the program. One of our contracts can go up to a year to two years.

John Bwarie: Okay.

Tonja Boykin: But it really depends. We have contracts with multiple organizations. So, we work with the Office of Reentry, so, individuals coming right out of incarceration. We work with the Department of Health Services, so we have folks that are coming in through there. Department of Mental Health, we have substance abuse programs; it just depends.

If you’ve been referred by an agency to us, that usually determines the length of time, but I think what we know, and those agencies know, is that it takes a different amount of time for everyone. So, we have great partnerships. If an individual’s stay, to use that term, is up but they’re not ready, our case managers get on the phone and make that phone call, and we’ve never had a situation, because I do know that the city and all of its agencies are really focused on this, where anyone says, “No, you have to put them out.”

And even if they did, and they don’t, we wouldn’t do that. Because our goal is to get you in, and it may take a couple of times, to your point. You may come in, you may stay a week, and say, “I don’t want to be here.” Go back out on the street.

As many times as it takes, you’re welcome. You’re welcome to stay, you’re welcome to come in, you leave, you come back, we’re going to greet you with open arms and we’re going to say, “All right, let’s get down to business. What do you want to do?”

John Bwarie: And so, that’s what’s happening here in the Skid Row community.

Tonja Boykin: Sure.

John Bwarie: But you’re not limited to Skid Row.

Tonja Boykin: No.

John Bwarie: So, tell us about sort of the organization as it relates to the region, or wherever you are.

Tonja Boykin: Sure. Well, as you mentioned, the problem is throughout our city, not just in Skid Row. And I think the mayor’s acknowledged that, and we know that. One of the things that we do with the Weingart Center is ultimately, try and help people get housing.

Housing means you’re not homeless, and there isn’t enough of it, and so the Weingart Center decided to start with property that we own that’s next to the facility by building permanent supportive housing. And we will be building three projects here in Skid Row right around the property we own, but we branched out. So, we will be building supporting housing in kind of the Westwood, sort of Santa Monica area. We’ve done bridge housing, which is a little bit of a lengthier stay. These are individuals who are connected and waiting for their housing, but still need a place to go in West Hollywood area, like right off of Sunset.

We are working in the South LA area on Broadway. We are going after it all. I mean, we’re competitive, and I…

John Bwarie: We are, or you are? I mean…

Tonja Boykin: I am!

John Bwarie: I hear…

Tonja Boykin: But I say we in the sense that the Weingart Center and our leader, Senator Kevin Murray, we know there’s a need out there, and for more than going on 36 years, we have expertly understood this issue and been working through this issue, have resources to bear that we think are important to share not just in Skid Row, and that’s what we’re doing. So, we are growing. We decided to go into permanent supportive housing because 623 people across the street, as well as all of the folks that are on the street here, need housing. And there isn’t enough of it.

John Bwarie: So, how many? You have 600 transitional beds.

Tonja Boykin: Yes, 623.

John Bwarie: 623. What’s your permanent supportive that you’re building? How many units are you looking at?

Tonja Boykin: Wow. So, here in the Skid Row area, it’ll end up being around 700 units of permanent supportive housing.

John Bwarie: Wow.

Tonja Boykin: And then, outside of that, I’d say we are well about to hit somewhere around 1,200 units.

John Bwarie: Outside or including?

Tonja Boykin: Combined.

John Bwarie: Oh, combined. That’s amazing. I mean, it’s both amazing that you’re able to do that, and also amazing that that’s what we need, right?

Tonja Boykin: That’s exactly what we need.

John Bwarie: But it’s just a drop in the bucket for what is needed in this city.

Tonja Boykin: Absolutely.

John Bwarie: If you look at the population of this community outside your 623, how many people are living on the streets? What’s the estimate for the Skid Row area?

Tonja Boykin: I think we’re talking in the thousands. I mean, I hear numbers that… just in this particular area alone, I’ve heard anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 people. I think that could be accurate. It’s sort of hard to know. Not everyone is standing outside saying, “Hey, count me.” So, I think that there’s always going to be that margin of error, but I’d say anywhere between five and 7,000 individuals.

John Bwarie: And so, if you look at that and you look at the 1,200 units you’re going to bring online in the next couple years, because I know that permitting and construction, it just takes time.

Tonja Boykin: Sure. It takes some time, mm-hmm (affirmative).

John Bwarie: What’s the plan? Do you have a plan to say, “Okay, we’re going to get those 1,200 and then the idea is we’ll just keep going? Do we just keep going until everybody has a house?” What’s the vision?

Tonja Boykin: I think that’s… our board of directors and our leadership are looking at right now, where does the Weingart Center go? And we’re having those conversations.

Do we become permanent supportive housing developers? Do we… I don’t know. I mean, I know that there’s a need, and there’s a need not just for permanent supportive housing but for the transitional housing that we provide. I’m a firm believer that people need coaching and they need skills to be able to be successful in housing. Whether it’s our permanent supportive housing or affordable housing, or anywhere else. When someone has been living on the streets a year, 10 years, some people 20 years, you have to figure out how to be a good neighbor again. You have to figure out what a new definition of community is.

And so, transitional housing, which is much needed that we currently provide, helps you get those skills. Because the last thing we want to see is someone moved into permanent supportive housing and not be ready, and return to the streets. So, I don’t know where the Weingart Center goes, because I think there’s a place for all the things that we do.

And maybe we just keep going. Maybe we stop. I mean, that’s up for debate. And I think at this particular point, our board gave us a mandate; we’re in our third year of our strategic plan, which was we wanted to expand. We want to be meaningful in the middle of a major crisis. That was loud and clear, and how were we going to do that?

We were going to expand programs, so bride housing in West Hollywood is a perfect example of that. We were going to build permanent supportive housing, and we are well on the road to doing that. And we were going to figure out how we could make an impact in this crisis, and that’s what we’re doing. Where that ends, I don’t know.

John Bwarie: Till the crisis is over, we won’t.

Tonja Boykin: Till the crisis is over, I tell people all the time, I would be happy to be out of a job at some point. I love what I do, but I see this as an issue that we all have to look at, and there isn’t one way to fix it. There are multiple things.

John Bwarie: So, how do you, just to acknowledge that, how do you partner with other organizations? I mean, you’re one of the leading organizations in Skid Row in the city on homelessness issues, on housing issues. How do you find the right partners that don’t either distract you from your core, or don’t feel like they’re just coming along with you, that they’re actually a partner, an equal player in the work you’re trying to do? How do you develop those kind of partnerships? Whether it’s with government, for-profit endeavors, or other nonprofit service providers.

Tonja Boykin: Well, I mean, I think again it goes back to the same way you build community: it’s a conversation. There are organizations that have a very different approach to homelessness. I don’t think there, as I’ve said, is any one right answer. I can disagree with a process, but at the core still understand that we are all working towards ending this crisis.

When there’s an opportunity, we know who are our allies in a particular project, if you will. So, we work with Chrysalis. They’re a service provider, they do workforce development, they also do our housekeeping. Makes sense; many of the clients that they serve are living in our housing, and many of the folks that they get working again once lived at the Weingart Center. That’s the synergy.

There will be opportunities. We pick up the phone, call each other, and say, “Hey, what do you think about this idea? Does it work? Does it not work? You in? You not in?” We go back and we’ll say, “You know, here’s the opportunity. What does this do for us? Does this stretch us thin? Does this take us off our core focus? Is it worth it? Is there enough…” As they say, is there enough juice in that berry? Do we want to do this?

And then if we’re going to do it, then you do it the same way you build community. You sit down and say, “Okay, what part of this do you take? What part of it do I take? How do we jointly represent each other? Where are the areas that… You say out of my backyard and I’ll stay out of yours.” It’s all about conversation. I mean, I think ultimately, everything comes down to that. It comes down to just talking to people.

And we do that. We definitely get opportunities that our partners, like Chrysalis or others, will bring to the table that we’re like, “Eh, no. We’re not into that right now.” No harm, no foul. We wish you well, we’ll support you, we’ll cheer you on. And then, there are opportunities where it’s like, “We should really do this together because the combined power of our organizations can really make an impact.” And that’s kind of how we do it.

John Bwarie: This has been a tremendous conversation about community from your personal perspective, from the organizational perspective, and I probably could talk to you for another two to three hours if we really dug into each of the nuggets that I wrote down on my sheet about all the things you’re doing and the approaches that you have. I want to ask you now just one final question before we go to our lightning round, all right?

Tonja Boykin: Yes, I’ve heard about the lightning round.

John Bwarie: The lightning round’s coming! When you look at this three-decade-plus career that you’ve had, is there a point in your career where you had an experience, positive or negative, that then changed the way you dealt with community thereout, and that you still apply today?

Tonja Boykin: Absolutely. I was working for LA’s best after-school program. I was the liaison between LAUSD and the mayor’s office.

John Bwarie: Under which mayor?

Tonja Boykin: Under Mayor Riordan.

John Bwarie: Okay.

Tonja Boykin: I went into the community of Venice to the school to create a talent show, and all over the city, there would be talent shows, and the winners of each talent show would perform during the LA Marathon at the end when they come through City Hall.

And I was very rigid in my thinking about exactly what needed to happen in each talent show. And so, I went to the one in Venice, after working with the after-school staff there, and the teachers, and had this very direct plan about what was going to happen…

And none of it did. And the kids were doing something completely different. And the teachers were all doing something completely different. And I was livid. And I was 25, 26 at the time. I was so angry. And I got in my car… talked to the guy first and I was, “This is not what I asked you to do, and this is not what was supposed to happen,” got in my car and called my boss at the time, was a woman by the name of Carla Sanger. And I said, “It just was a mess! It was terrible! They didn’t do what they were supposed to do!”

And she said, “Was the community there?”

And I said, “Well, yes.”

“How many people?”

I said, “Like, 200.”

She said, “Really? Were the kids laughing and having fun?”

“Yes! But that’s beside the point!”

And she said, “Were the parents engaged?” I said absolutely. She said, “Then what’s the problem? That’s community. It’s not what you think it’s supposed to be, it’s what they think it’s supposed to be.”

Hugely embarrassed, felt like an idiot; she was absolutely right, and I’ve used that in every single community I’ve gone into. It is not my definition of community. It’s not my story I bring to the table, it’s their story.

So, I became… I started to not take myself so seriously, which is my other thing that I learned, and I learned to relax. And the idea is there, at the end of the day, if you get people coming together, it doesn’t matter what the details were. In fact, all the agendas I created, and the sign-in sheets, no one ever saw those. No one cared about them. It was my stuff.

But that community was just so empowered, and actually as a result, there were three little girls who performed at that school as The Supremes, and I can see it in my brain, and they won. And one of the best days of my life was standing in front of City Hall on this dais with these three little girls who were singing their hearts out and performing, and people were crying because they were just so amazing, and I thought, “I should really never forget this, and never go into a community again and think I know what they need.” I think that’s my moment.

John Bwarie: Wow. Well, thank you for sharing that personal moment with us. That’s great. Let’s go to our lightning round. Just a short, short simple answer…

Tonja Boykin: Okay.

John Bwarie: Don’t think about it too much, and we’ll get right into it. Who is a leader who has influenced you and your work?

Tonja Boykin: My father, Edward Boykin, was a builder in this city and very much influenced me, and the second is my mentor, Jane Graff. She’s CEO of Mercy Housing.

John Bwarie: What book has changed the way you think about the role of community in your work?

Tonja Boykin: Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

John Bwarie: What is the most accessible yet impactful way an Angeleno can help fight against this homelessness crisis?

Tonja Boykin: Have the conversations.

John Bwarie: What’s the first place you turn to for information when working with a new community?

Tonja Boykin: The neighbors who live there. John Bwarie: What local restaurant do you always bring friends to when they visit downtown LA?

Tonja Boykin: Toroni. Favorite place!

John Bwarie: What advice would you give 25-year-old you?

Tonja Boykin: Oh, shut up and listen!

John Bwarie: What’s the best career decision you ever made?

Tonja Boykin: Coming back to Los Angeles.

John Bwarie: And so far, what has been your proudest professional moment?

Tonja Boykin: Handing a young woman and her daughter keys to their first home.

John Bwarie: Great. Thank you, Tonja, so much for spending some time with us, and…

Tonja Boykin: You’re welcome.   

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