The Madeleine Brand Show for January 13, 2012

Helping the homeless any way he can

Troy Isaac

Kevin Ferguson/KPCC

Homeless advocate Troy Erik Isaac on a bus in Downtown Los Angeles

Last year, the Los Angeles Homeless services Authority estimated there are over 51,000 homeless in L.A. County. Troy Eric Isaac is 38 years old, and he’s trying to change that. Traveling by foot and bus, he’s a sort of freelance homeless advocate, offering help and support to anyone who asks for it, and even those who don’t. Off-Ramp producer Kevin Ferguson spent the day with Troy.

It's about 7:30 on a cold Monday morning in West Adams. After taking his dog, a shih-tzu named Smoothie out for a walk, Troy Isaac is out the door and off to work.

"We're going downtown Los Angeles," he said. "Cause I need to go on Broadway to see a person--I don't like calling them clients — but he's a friend, Eddie Jones, he's homeless. And he usually takes care of a jewelry store. He sleeps in front of the jewelry story on Broadway and the jewelry people give him like two to three dollars to sleep in front of them every night."

Today might be the day Jones moves off the streets into a place of his own, and Troy could not be more excited. Troy calls himself a field advocate — armed with a backpack, a pack of cigarettes and a credit card paid for by a prominent Mid-Wilshire philanthropist, he walks Los Angeles seeking out and helping people who might otherwise go ignored: a woman passed out against a wall, a man screaming to himself, a couple sleeping under a tarp.

Literally, anyone: a trip down two city blocks can take a 45 minutes if he runs into enough people. He hands out his number constantly, and he never ignores a call.

He's imposing: six foot five inches tall--often wearing a black trench coat, combat boots and a mohawk... And on any given day, Troy could be anywhere: the Sunset Strip, Skid Row, Crenshaw, the Miracle Mile, or like on this morning--Downtown's jewelry district.

He's just getting off the bus at Seventh and Olive when Troy notices a woman nearby. She's covered in blankets, resting with her head on her knees. When Troy approaches her, she gives her name only as Smith. After a little coaxing, Smith admits she's hungry, and she'll take anything to eat. "Some coffee with it?" Smith adds.

"Sure," says Troy.

Troy says he does this because he loves people. "And I don't think I would be happy if I didn't help."

He walks into a 7 Eleven across the street, buys a sandwich and a coffee and brings it back. In the course of this 10 minute interaction Smith's demeanor has gone from suspicious and guarded to pretty warm, thanking Troy and laughing as he leaves.

Troy does this kind of thing all the time: whenever he encounters a homeless person he'll strike up a conversation, offer them a cigarette, say he or she looks really nice, then ask how he can help. Troy says his inspiration to do all this comes from an unlikely source. "It's thanks to Oprah that I've made myself who I am today," he says.

"And there are times that I channel myself ever since I’ve been out---there are times that I sound like Oprah, when I’m giving things away."

He says one of the most important parts in all this is to avoid expectations. "I meet people where they're at," he says.

"So if they just want a sing a song, we just sing a song. If they just want to hang out and talk about something only they can understand, I'm fine with it."

After asking around for a while, Isaacs finds his friend Eddie Jones, he's just off Broadway. Jones runs a shoe shining business by day. Troy approaches Jones' shoe shine cart, cheerily greeting him. "I would like to see if SRO down the street has a bed," says Troy. "If they have a bed, would you like to go there today?"

"A bed in a shelter?" Jones asks.

"No," says Troy. "A bed by yourself, in your own room!"

Jones delights at the possibility. Troy gets on the phone and starts calling around. Jones says he's been on the street since he lost his job shining shoes at the Bonaventure Hotel. Housing someone like Jones is difficult work: he says he avoids most shelters after a few bad experiences there. And because his shoe shining business is based downtown, he wants to stay local. Troy has been trying to find a place for Jones for some time.

Hanging up the phone, it's apparent that today is Jones' day. There's no bed space for Jones, but Troy promises to follow up every day. "I appreciate you doing this," says Jones.

"You know that I've been trying!" Troy replies.

And with that, Troy moves on--he has a meeting on Skid Row. He talks with everyone he sees on the way. He’s been doing that for three years, helping everyone he can find. And there’s no sign he’s slowing down.


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