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East West Lifestyle

Home is Where the Heart is for Former Homeless Veteran

January 24, 2015
United Way veteran beneficiary Marva Lewis at home with her two dogs
Marva Lewis at home with her two dogs Fudgee and Kockey-nut

U.S. Navy veteran gives back after finding hope and home through the kindness of strangers.

When U.S. Navy veteran Marva Lewis first moved into her new apartment, she jumped up and down on the couch to make sure there really was a roof over her head.

“I really couldn’t believe it,” Lewis said, still excited. “I was like, ‘Wow, I’m inside. I can scream.’” Having her own indoor space meant a lot to Lewis, because she had lived on the streets for four years.

Before falling on hard times, Lewis was an E-3 airman in the Navy and repaired aircraft carriers. She maintained A-6 bomber aircraft and was in a squadron that prepared pilots to fight in Operation Desert Storm. After being honorably discharged in 1992, she began her career in the health-care field as a surgical technician.

United Way veteran beneficiary Marva Lewis navy hat and service photograph
Lewis' Navy cap and service photo

Then she had a bad fall while at work and injured her back. She lost her job and had to dig into her savings, but they only lasted for so long. “Two major causes of homelessness are job loss and a medical emergency. I experienced both,” she said.

Consequently, she could no longer keep up with her rent and was evicted in 2009. She and her dogs wound up living in a local park. Most days, the pain from her injury was so great that even lying down was painful, so she just walked, day and night.

“Walking and then passing out. That’s all I remember,” she said. Lewis said she called out to God but there seemed to be no answer. “For the first time, I feel like he didn’t see me.”

It was at this vulnerable time that her father passed away. Lewis said she was on the verge of crumbling.

“I don’t know how I even made it through. Because nobody was available, I feel like I was really alone.”

Just when she felt engulfed by her situation, she got a reprieve.

On a cold night in 2012, she was at a winter shelter in Pomona, Calif., looking for sheets to help her and her dogs survive the winter weather. A man approached her and befriended her dogs. That man was Joe Leal, founder and CEO of the Vet Hunters Project.

Leal asked her if she was a veteran. When she said yes, Leal told her he could help her. At first Lewis was hesitant, because she had to be separated from her dogs, but eventually she accepted Leal’s help.

It was a life-changing moment. “He helped me so tremendously. He was there for me,” she recalled with gratitude.

Shortly thereafter, Leal connected her with PATH (People Assisting the Homeless), a partner organization with the United Way. Ronda Serigstad from PATH helped her file documents and connected her with benefits that she didn’t know she had, like veterans’ housing and general relief. Most importantly, PATH found her an apartment so she and her dogs would finally have a roof over their heads.

“Ronda understood me. She helped me say ‘enough’ to all of this. She was an angel,” Lewis said.

In 2013, Lewis moved into an apartment in Glendale. The very first thing she did was to sit on the floor with her dogs and pray.

Her story has inspired many people, including first lady Michelle Obama, who saw her story in a documentary that played during the Unite for Veterans Summit in 2014. Afterward, Obama looked at Lewis and said to her, “I’m so proud of you.”

Giving Back

The population of homeless people living on the streets of Los Angeles County is 44,359, according to Los Angeles’ biennial homeless census, released in May 2015. The number could be bigger, due to their transient nature.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Los Angeles City Council declared “a state of emergency” in September 2015 and announced that the city is devoting at least $100 million to fighting homelessness.

“It’s a big test, because homelessness is so many people. Homelessness is not just something you can fold it up and it will go away,” Lewis said.

The homeless census showed that the number of homeless veterans in Los Angeles County increased slightly, from 4,007 in 2013 to 4,016 in 2015, compared with a 12 percent jump in the total homeless population in the county. Homeless veterans have received more attention since the Obama administration challenged mayors across the nation to house all homeless veterans by the end of the year.

However, the question in the back of Lewis’ mind was – “What if I wasn’t a veteran?”

Having experienced homelessness firsthand, Lewis knows there are different stories out there, but a lot of people are in too much pain to tell their stories. So she “tries to advocate for that, not just vets, but all homelessness.”

For Lewis, United Way didn’t just come into her life after she became homeless. She remembered seeing her father write regular checks for $10 to the organization, and she asked him what they were for. He replied, “I have a daughter named Marva Lewis; she may need it one day.”

“So when United Way came to me, it was like, ‘You [God] heard me’,” she said, looking upward, as if God had answered her prayer. She now gives back to United Way of Greater Los Angeles and its many efforts to move homeless people into permanent housing by visiting companies such as UPS Inc. and Bank of America Corp. to share her experience.

“It’s hard to tell your story, but I need people to know. People need to know, because this is happening, and you can’t let that happen to you,” she said. “It may seem like I don’t need nobody. But no; we all need somebody.”

Staying Strong

After going through the darkest time in her life, Lewis now feels stronger about the future. “My dignity is dented, but I’m healing. The light is much brighter.”

“Don’t give up on yourself,” she said. “That’s the worst thing you can do.”

She still has fear, but she has acknowledged it and has learned to control it. “You have to be your [own] best friend. We got to be able to get up again, even with nothing. You still have to get up.”

Lewis is now working and attending Glendale Community College in order to earn an associate’s degree in chemistry. Her career goal is to get back to working in a health-care setting and ultimately to buy a home.

United Way veteran beneficiary Marva Lewis touching the roof in her home
Lewis reaching up to feel the roof over her head

She now lives a stable life with her mother, her sister and her two Chihuahuas – Fudgee and Kockey-nut (pronounced “coconut”) – who have been through everything with her.

“Now I can say I’m blessed. I went through a lot. Was it worth it? I think so.”

East West Bank is a proud partner of United Way of Greater Los Angeles, which is raising awareness in the community about homelessness and creating pathways out of poverty.