An abrupt jump from living in a car to an apartment is 'almost a shock wave'

EAST HOLLYWOOD, CA - OCTOBER 12, 2023 - David Mays, 69, collapses on his bed, the first thing he did upon entering his new apartment at The Wilcox offered by the People Concern in East Hollywood on October 12, 2023. Mays had been living g in his car for the past two years. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
After living in his car for the last two years, David Mays collapses on his bed in his new apartment at the Wilcox. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Early on the morning of Oct. 12, David Mays woke up in the Chevrolet he had been living in for two years, knowing this day would be different.

Safe Parking L.A. had been a blessing, providing a covered space in a downtown garage, with on-site security and access to a bathroom. That was better than sleeping on the street with one eye open.

But Mays had been hobbled by the discomfort of sleeping in the driver’s seat for months on end, and the 69-year-old caregiver had developed health concerns of his own. His legs were stiff, swollen and sore, complicating his hope of returning to work. And he was beginning to doubt promises that his wait for a place of his own would end despite the best efforts of Demi Dominguez, his Safe Parking case manager, to get him indoors.

A man and a woman hug at an apartment complex
David Mays gives Demi Dominguez, his Safe Parking L.A. case manager, a hug of support after signing papers for his new apartment. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

And then it happened. Dominguez learned in late summer of a possible slot for Mays at a soon-to-open apartment building in East Hollywood. The Wilcox was to be managed by The People Concern, a homeless services nonprofit, with on-site supportive services for adults 62 or older –- one of the fastest-growing segments of the state's vast unhoused population.

Mays drove to the Wilcox on the 12th, sat through an orientation and, finally, was escorted to his new home, a small but comfortable second-floor studio apartment.

He was not overwhelmed, as one might expect. It was too much to process.

“To be honest,” he told me, seated in his dining nook a few weeks after moving in, “I wasn’t aware. I wasn’t feeling it.”

Mays, who speaks deliberately, turned inward, searching for the right words.

“I had been taught to be justifiably cynical for so long, that when it finally happened, and it was real, and we’re doing this — this is your apartment — my brain almost kind of took a pause,” Mays said. “And then at some point, I realized — I think when I collapsed on that bed, and it took a couple of days for it to truly sink in –- this was my apartment.

A man moves belongings from the trunk of his car to his new apartment unit.
After two years of living in his car, David Mays prepares to move some of his belongings into his new apartment. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

“I had been out there so long that this was almost the equivalent of a daydream, because I had been so far removed from what I knew to be a normal life before it all went south, " he said. "And then to come back to some semblance of that, after two years of nothing ... it’s a quantum leap."

Mays said the experience was "almost a shock wave ... I’m lying there in that bed and I’m going, 'Am I really here?' I just laid out, and within 14 days, all the massive swelling went away. All of it.”

Read more: Column: Almost 70, unemployed, worried about his health and living in his car

Mays’ story is a small victory in a city with roughly 46,000 homeless people, but it’s also a window into a societal collapse and a grinding bureaucracy that has long been a symbol of government failure. Crippling housing and workforce shortages and a fragmented, dysfunctional response — along with entrenched poverty, unchecked mental illness and a raging drug epidemic — have produced a simmering humanitarian crisis visible to one and all.

A man prepares to enter his new apartment for the first time at the Wilcox in East Hollywood
David Mays enters his new apartment at the Wilcox in East Hollywood for the first time as community manager Daisy DePaz watches. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

“The timeline for housing remains a multi-year process,” said Emily Uyeda Kantrim, who runs Safe Parking L.A. and said Mays was in the housing queue since 2021.

Mays readily admits to his frustration.

Read more: Column: Retired Judge Lance Ito’s weekly ritual — paying homage to his late wife

“I lost faith,” he said, telling me he came to believe that the “system” treats homelessness as a monolithic condition. In fact, it’s 46,000 puzzles, each with a different solution, but key pieces of each puzzle are missing.

Eventually, he was buoyed by Safe Parking’s continued efforts to make a connection for him. Safe Parking helps its clients — a third of whom are older adults — with car maintenance costs and other expenses while they look for permanent housing.

“They were with me through the whole process,” Mays said, right up to the time he moved into his new home.

A man and a woman conversing in an apartment unit in East Hollywood.
David Mays shares his enthusiasm about finally getting a place to live with Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

On Nov. 6, while Mays was in his room, L.A. Mayor Karen Bass was downstairs in the courtyard, presiding over the official grand opening of the Wilcox. Tackling the homelessness crisis was at the top of her agenda when she was elected a year ago, and I recall traveling across the city with her when she was a candidate, as she talked about blowing up the bureaucracy, leveraging her contacts in Washington and Sacramento, working with — rather than at odds with — county supervisors, and lowering the cost of new housing and building it faster.

All of that remains a work in progress, but she gets high marks from some observers. Bass’ strategy of targeting problematic encampments, cutting through paperwork and leveraging her connections has changed the dynamic, said Miguel Santana, director of the California Community Foundation. Her background as a physician’s assistant has helped, too, he said, because she’s attuned to individual needs.

“She has placed the priority on the person who is unhoused and tries to advocate for them, not for the system,” Santana said. “She’s pushing against the system.”

“She has brought … real focus to this issue in a way no other administration has, and I’ve worked with several,” said John Maceri, director of The People Concern. “Her executive orders and directives, in terms of streamlining things, are real, and that has really expedited a lot of projects that had been languishing in the pipeline for a long time.”

A man sits on his bed and reflects in his new apartment.
"I had been taught to be justifiably cynical for so long, that when it finally happened, and it was real, and we're doing this — this is your apartment — my brain almost kind of took a pause," David Mays said. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Bass, like me, turned 70 in October. I had told her more than a year ago that while I was thinking it might be time to scale back my output, she was running for what would be the toughest job of her career. She told me she badly wanted the job.

“It’s been reported that one of the fastest-growing sectors of the unhoused population are our elders, and it is a scourge on society,” Bass told a small audience before doubling down on the need to continue addressing the crisis with a sense of urgency.

The mayor then wanted to meet some of the residents, and the first one she visited was Mays.

“How are you?” Mays asked when she stepped into his room, and Bass volleyed the question back at him.

“I’m disoriented a little bit,” Mays said. “I can’t believe that this is happening.”

They talked for several minutes about his career and his health, with Bass saying she wanted to make sure he was connected to the help he needed.

Read more: Column: On the hotel worker picket line, retirement is out of the question for many

“You brighten up my day,” Bass said. “This is what we’re trying to do. This is the goal.”

Before the mayor arrived and after she left, Mays talked about his plans, which do not necessarily include a long-term stay at the Wilcox. He worked for years as a private in-home caregiver, with room and board included, but it’s a profession in which clients move on to nursing homes or die, and Mays ended up out of work and homeless.

A man wearing a hat walks past a billboard with the message: "Create Your Future."
David Mays walks past a billboard with the message: "Create Your Future." (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Given multiple health challenges, he doesn’t think he can be a live-in caregiver again, but he’d like to work day shifts if he can find the right match. He said the problem is that if he were to make more than $1,000 a month, on top of his Social Security income, he'd no longer be eligible for the apartment he just moved into.

Mays said he’s got to figure out what to do about all of that, but emphasized that he doesn’t think of his arrival at the Wilcox as the end of his career or his aspirations.

“I have to work that out,” he said. “This, for me, is another rest stop. And it’s a vast improvement over the last one.”

Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.