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Starting Over

SUBJECT: Gwendolyn Hopkins

“Homeless in LA” Project

“My vision of death was dope in my hand and a pipe in my mouth; I died twice using. No breath in my body, no heartbeat or anything. If anyone was to say I would live to fifty, I would say it was totally impossible.”

Gwendolyn Hopkins – age 55

I had been silent for a while now during my interview with Gwendolyn; for anyone who knows me that is a rarity. So, as she talked I just listened; riveted and speechless. Thankfully, I was recording our conversation as I was far beyond the point I could focus on note taking.

As I looked at Gwendolyn now… I just couldn’t see it. She was sitting right next to me in a conference room at The Midnight Mission (TMM) and as much as I tried, I just could not visualize her as the character she was describing in her story. This person of her past was an utterly out of control drug addict; what I was seeing now was closer to the alter ego of the who she was in the past.

Finally, I broke my silence to allow myself a moment to divulge these very thoughts to her. I articulated how she appeared more like a happy and healthy businesswoman; one I might see at my office. And though I didn’t articulate this next thought, to me she embodied the spirit and energy that one person around the office with that ceaseless smile, never a harsh word and to whom everyone naturally gravitates toward.

IMAGE: Gwendolyn Hopkins

…Gwendolyn continued her testimony and I continued to be captivated…

“I had not been here (Los Angeles) for 20 years because last time I was here I was on crack cocaine. I used for 14 1/2 years of my life, every single day. I went to 10 rehabs during that time.” Then as almost a side-note remarked, “Oh and I was almost killed by 6 women.”

The look on my face was surely a visual manifestation of “Whaaat?”

She took a deep breath and continued. “I had been for up like nine days straight; non-stop smoking (crack). Not eating, not drinking, nothing but crack.”

My mouth was probably slightly ajar in disbelief as she described how this scenario had escalated into violence.

“I had run out of the house with them chasing me and had fallen to the ground. They were all around me with their instruments to bring pain to my body. They had a pistol pointed at my head, a crowbar, a steering wheel lock, a metal bat, a car jack handle, a leg ripped from a dinette table and one even had an iron (clothes) swinging it by the cord. I looked up, closed my eyes and prayed asking God not to let them kill me. When I opened my eyes, nobody was standing around me. I could have got up and ran but for some unknown reason I didn't. Instead I went right back into the home where they were. When I did the lady with the pistol put it to my temple demanding my drugs and money. Meanwhile, my grandmother had become aware of what was going on and told my Aunts who came to the house.

"Give her what she wants" one of my Aunt screamed.

I said “I’m not giving her nothing, if she wants it let her take it”

... and then the woman cocked the gun.

Now my frantic aunt is like slapping me in the face and she was screaming, “Gwen I just saw your life flash in front of my very eyes!" and she begged the lady to stop but she just kept pressing the gun against my temple and yelled "Give it to me, give it to me".

Finally, I just said, ”You know what! If you want it then just take it! I'm tired I think I am ready to see Jesus right now!”

The woman screamed back, “Are you ready to see him? Good, well you are about to see him!

I closed my eyes and I knew she was about to shoot me and...

There was a knock at the door...

…"It's LAPD, open the door."

A short while later when I was back at my own home my mom put me in the car and drove me right down the closest greyhound station. She told me that if I returned SHE was going to be the one that would kill me. So I got on the bus, and went to a rehab in San Bernardino; I had not been back to Los Angeles since then.

As Gwendolyn paused to take a breath, my mind filled the audible void with some introspective thoughts... I have always known I was pretty lucky to have the family I had. Not perfect, (what family is) but after hearing Gwen’s story I felt like mine was more similar the Brady Bunch with large-ass dollop of happy sauce on top.

I then asked, "Gwen, you have been sober for quite a while now right? (she nods in confirmation), so what brought you to the Midnight Mission just recently?"

Gwendolyn then gave me a few highlights which included a physically abusive 8-year marriage and an emotionally abusive two-year stay in Arizona taking care of her stepmother. At that point she was now also with her 20-year-old daughter and two year old stepdaughter. Enough was enough and she decided to pack them all up and head back to Los Angeles. The plan: Stay with her mother. Unfortunately, those plans quickly deteriorated as her mother now lived in a one bedroom senior facility. This meant all three would be sleeping on the floor. Unable to work due to a disability and now unable to stay with her mother, her outlook had only one visible option… homelessness. Not only for her but her daughter and granddaughter.

Luckily, Gwendolyn’s uncle Roosevelt Floyd had been a driver for the President of TMM for twelve years. And in true form to his past job title, Roosevelt drove Gwendolyn down to TMM to get her t help. That was March 13, 2017.

IMAGE: Gwendolyn in front of the Midnight Mission

SJC: So tell me about The Midnight Mission? Are things well?

GWENDOLYN: Things are going really well. I go out every-day house hunting.

Gwendolyn then expounded about the strong support she had received with access to computers, housing consultants, third party support and the list went on and on.

GWENDOLYN: “I have a couple of irons in the fire for housing – I am working with Larry Love and Miss Julie Barrios, both have been helping me so, so much. A lot of women here have gotten housing already (smiling). Everyone here really goes out of his or her way to help.

SJC: You said when you left Arizona you were with your daughter and granddaughter. How are things with them now?

I can see the pain in Gwendolyn’s eyes and she paused to gather her thoughts.

GWENDOLYN: My Daughter and my granddaughter are staying in San Bernardino with their Godmother now. I worry about that because I almost lost here twice on the last pregnancy... I just think that… ( starts tearing up) …the doctor told her she is high risk that if she has another baby within five years she is going to die… and… she is pregnant right now and she is having complications already.

I realize yes there is pain but I also see a determination through the tears in her eyes. I decided to change the topic.

SJC: Tell me about your granddaughter

GWENDOLYN: (Her eyes twinkle and smile as she starts to talk) I love her so much! - I love her so much! She is my first granddaughter! I always had her with me. We got really close and developed a special bond with her… It was a privilege taking care of her.

As Gwendolyn paused in thought the word privilege resonated in my mind.

GWENDOLYN: ..But I haven't seen her for two months.

SJC: Can you tell me about some more of your experiences here at the mission?

GWENDOLYN: I have been trying to make myself useful by volunteering downstairs and working with others in the program. I am trying to bring hope to the other women in the shelter by sharing my life experiences with them - They like me to sing for them, share my testimony and pray with them (her smile is back and bigger than ever). I also get up at 3:00 AM every morning and read five chapters out of my bible and I pray for an hour. Sometimes the women get up and say "Oh Gwen I felt your prayers"


Gwendolyn and her friend Maria who currently lives on Skid Row but was seeking the safety of the Midnight Mission courtyard

I am also trying to get involved in practically everything they have. I have been doing a lot of yoga, and as you know I sang a solo at open mic* "Amazing Grace".

(*Open mic is one of TMM events called “Music with a Mission” )

She continued, "I am even taking up guitar lessons (giggle) even went to the hula-hoop mediation (a bigger giggle). On Sundays I go to church and come back and go to the basketball game up in the gym.

OPEN MIC: Gwendolyn singing Amazing Grace

OPEN MIC: Gwendolyn singing Amazing Grace

Want to see a mini clip of Gwendolyn singing? Click the image below

SJC: Is there anyone that you have really bonded with or that has helped or been influential on your journey here?

GWENDOLYN: Mainly Larry and Miss Julie Barrios - They helped me by telling me where to go for help (with housing), places that would help with first and last months rent.

SJC: So housing is a big goal? Also, if you had to paint everything going the way you wanted how do you see things going in the future?

GWENDOLYN: Yes, mainly housing but and getting bonded again with my daughters and grandchildren. My oldest is out there on drugs; my other one is in an abusive relationship. So mainly my family coming back together - THAT is my biggest hope!

SJC: Is there anything you could think of that you would want to tell anyone not in the program that you think might have made a difference?

GWENDOLYN: That if you need help THIS is a place to come - but be willing to work to make yourself better. They are there to help you and if you do, you will be successful in completing what you were here for.

SJC: Any last thoughts?

GWENDOLYN: I am just so grateful… grateful.

Final Thoughts

Right now I on a Metrolink train on my daily commute and reflecting on this experience. I realized that like my new friend Gwendolyn, if I had to summarize my current feelings into a single word it would also be“gratitude”.

IMAGE: Gwendolyn in the MM courtyard

I am grateful to have had the privilege to meet Gwendolyn Hopkins and experience her nonstop smile, positive outlook and innate need to help others. All this in spite of a tragic past and challenging future. She has set a benchmark for me to strive to emulate when I find myself complaining about the trivial things in life.

I am reminded to also be grateful for what I have now as I know that could change. One thing I have learned from my experience with my homelessness project is that becoming homeless is something that can happen to almost anyone. It doesn’t happen overnight but, by way of a series of many unfortunate events and it can happen. But I do know if I should ever find myself in that position there is help...

... which is why I am grateful for places like the Midnight Mission. Organizations that are dedicated to helping others in need. TMM serves over a Million meals a year, has a 12 month assistance program, a 12 step program, a women’s shelter, education and job assistance programs, provide transitional housing, hospital referrals and so, so much more. The price for getting help?...

All one has to do is ask.

For more information on or to support the Midnight Mission Click on the Midnight Mission Logo below

Steven James Collins

Freelance Photographer and Writer

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