It was a magical evening under the stars in Venice, California last Wednesday night with our first “Everyone In: Stories from the Frontline, Stories to End Homelessness” event where an audience of nearly 300 were immersed in stories from formerly homeless members of our community. Breaking down stereotypes, the five formerly homeless speakers represented a diverse set of perspectives, while L.A. City Councilmember Mike Bonin spoke movingly of his own personal story and what inspires him to be a leader on this issue.

Sue Gallagher was one of the speakers. You can read her story here.

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My name is Sue. I’m a chef and an artist.

I’ve lived in Venice for 33 years after moving here when I was 27.  I became homeless when my landlord decided to build up a parking lot – I never thought I’d end up homeless. Just the thought scared me to death.

When I was homeless, I lived near UCLA and the women on the streets showed me the ropes. I slept on the cement, and it broke my back. We all slept real close to each other, and the police watched over us women when we were sleeping. A psychiatrist I met at the Venice family clinic had a lot of empathy. She gave me a key to her kitchen lab so I could clean up, and wash up, and eat a nice meal and have some oatmeal and coffee and put my luggage there.

For myself - as a woman - I like to stay clean. I have to have some dignity. Every day I would say to myself, “This is only temporary. This is only temporary. Just put one foot in front of the other.”

Homelessness is a 24-hour gig. Where are you going to sleep? Where are you going to eat? Where are you going to take a nap?

I never wanted to live like an animal. You lose your dignity on the streets. I had to eat a lot of humble pie and had to say to my friends, “I’m homeless. I’m scared.” I cried in meetings and I couldn’t get comfortable sleeping on the cement, constantly looking over my shoulder.

UCLA students had a lot of empathy. They would bring us brand new hoodies and juice and nuts and hot tea. When it rained, the ladies told me to get a shower curtain - and when it was freezing at night they would tell me to get some solar blankets to stay dry and warm.

I stayed sober despite all the odds because of the 12-step support. I was afraid I’d drink. It’s so depressing out there on the streets, but I just had to stay in the moment and trust in my higher power. Positive affirmations from others kept me going.

I’d go down to the beach, and the sounds of those huge waves crashing down and the sand in-between my feet gave me some comfort some serenity - and some hope.

The highlights of my day were eating chef-like quality food at St. Joseph’s. Then I’d volunteer at St. Joseph’s food pantry and check in with my social worker for basic needs – like a haircut. St. Joseph’s always got me connected with housing, and today I live in a comfortable one-bedroom apartment in East Hollywood.

It’s affordable housing- thank goodness! I was so overwhelmed that I cried like a baby for a week – I was so grateful. I pay $331 a month based on 30% of my monthly income. St. Joseph’s gave me bedding, kitchen supplies, glasses, linens, bed and a TV, and the 12-step program helped me make my house a home by bringing me furniture.

I have great neighbors. I feel secure and safe. At the end of the day, my neighbors have my back. It’s quiet. When I open the door, I hear nothing. But - I do hear sparrows, and I feed those sparrows every morning - I’m just giving back. I’ll do anything for St. Joe’s because I’m eternally grateful.

I hope you can reach into your hearts, have some compassion, some kindness, some empathy and some hope. We all need your help. Yes, we do. Thanks for listening to my story and God bless you all.

The John and Marilyn Wells Family Foundation is sponsoring a full series of events—United Way of Greater Los Angeles’ Everyone In campaign plans to hold at least seven more events in other communities over the next year. Elise Buik, United Way of Greater Los Angeles president and CEO, concluded the event by bringing all of the speakers back on stage and proclaiming how proud she would be to call each speaker her neighbor.